Music could be the secret to fighting off dementia, study says: ‘Profound impact’

There’s nothing like a nostalgic song to transport you back to a special time and place — and now a new study has shown that music could help protect those memories for a lifetime.

Researchers at the University of Exeter discovered that people who “engage in music” over the course of their lives tend to have improved memory and better overall brain health as they age, according to a press release.

The findings were published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

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“The main message here is that different ways of engaging with music throughout life could be linked to different benefits,” lead researcher Anne Corbett, professor of dementia research at the University of Exeter, told Fox News Digital. 

“This has implications for public health, on the importance of including music in general education, and of keeping it up throughout life, or revisiting in mid to late life,” she went on. 

Man playing guitar

A new study has shown that music could help protect memory and cognitive function for a lifetime. (iStock)

The scientists analyzed data for more than 1,107 people 40 and older who had not been diagnosed with dementia. They were all participants in the PROTECT study, a long-running U.K. research initiative focused on brain health and dementia that has been running since 2015.

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The data for this particular study was collected between March 2019 and March 2022. Participants completed questionnaires in which they reported their experiences with playing a musical instrument, singing, reading music and listening to music.

 They also rated the level of their abilities.

The participants, who were 83% female and had an average age of 67, also took an online cognitive test to gauge their memory and executive function.

Seniors singing

Those who regularly sang were also shown to have better brain health, the study found, but researchers noted that could also be a result of social factors. (iStock)

The participants who played a musical instrument were found to have higher cognitive skills and enhanced memory compared to those who did not.

The piano was shown to have the biggest cognitive benefit. The longer the person played, the greater the benefits.

Those who regularly sang were also shown to have better brain health, the study found, but researchers noted that could also be a result of social factors.

“Our findings indicate that learning and engaging with music can enhance the brain’s resilience in a similar way to learning a new language.”

“Because of the scale of our study, and the information we have available, we were able to break down the results to look at the association from different types of musicality,” said Corbett. “Singing was associated with better executive function, which could be because of the social aspect of being in a choir.”

People who learn more through written music seemed to have better numerical memory abilities, she noted, whereas playing a keyboard was linked to benefits across the board. 

“We found no effect from listening to music alone – formal learning was key,” Corbett added.

Woman playing guitar

Participants who played a musical instrument were found to have higher cognitive skills and enhanced memory compared to those who did not. (iStock)

Based on these findings, the researchers recommend promoting musical education and engagement — from childhood onward — as a means of protecting brain health.

“We think this could be incorporated into general lifestyle advice such as eating healthy and being active, which is geared toward keeping our brains sharp in later life,” said Corbett.

“Our findings indicate that learning and engaging with music can enhance the brain’s resilience in a similar way to learning a new language.”

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The study did have some limitations, the researcher shared.

“The number of people in our study who played certain instruments was quite small, so this may have accounted for part of the effect we found,” Corbett said. 

“We also didn’t look at whether taking up an instrument for the first time in later life would have benefit, though it certainly doesn’t do any harm and people would benefit from enjoyment and social interaction. Looking at any impact on the brain could be an interesting avenue for future research.”

Piano nursing home

The piano was shown to have the biggest cognitive benefit. The longer the person played, the greater the benefits. (iStock)

Dr. Brandon Crawford, a functional neurologist at the NeuroSolution Center of Austin, who was not involved in the study, confirmed the “profound impact” that musical activities, including playing instruments and singing, have on the brain. 

“Playing musical instruments and singing engage and strengthen various cognitive processes, including memory, attention and executive functions,” he told Fox News Digital. 

“The key is consistent engagement and enjoyment, which are crucial for sustaining the activity and reaping the neurological benefit.”

“They enhance neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural connections, fostering an environment conducive to learning and growth,” Crawford went on. “Music also stimulates emotional processing and can improve mood, offering a therapeutic benefit.”

The benefits of musical activities are both preventative and rehabilitative, the doctor said. 

“For individuals without cognitive impairments, these activities can help maintain and even improve cognitive functions, serving as a protective measure against cognitive decline,” he said. 

Reading music

“Instruments like the piano or violin demand coordination between both hands, reading music and emotional expression, engaging a wide range of brain areas,” a neurologist said.  (iStock)

“Meanwhile, [for] those already experiencing symptoms of cognitive decline, musical activities can slow the progression of such symptoms and, in some cases, restore cognitive functions thanks to the brain’s remarkable ability to adapt and change.”

Some of Crawford’s own patients have experienced noticeable improvements in memory, mood and cognitive functions as a result of musical activity, he said. 

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“For example, patients with early signs of dementia who started playing the piano or singing regularly have shown improvements in recall abilities and a reduction in the progression of their symptoms,” he shared. 

While all musical activities offer benefits, Crawford noted that some instruments might provide more significant cognitive stimulation due to the complexity of the skills they require. 

Singing in choir

“Singing was associated with better executive function, which could be because of the social aspect of being in a choir,” said the lead researcher. (iStock)

“Instruments like the piano or violin demand coordination between both hands, reading music and emotional expression, engaging a wide range of brain areas,” he said. 

The most important thing is that the person enjoys the activity, according to Crawford.

“The key is consistent engagement and enjoyment, which are crucial for sustaining the activity and reaping the neurological benefits,” he said.

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Corbett added, “We know that lifestyle factors are important for keeping our brains as sharp as possible in later life.”

“Engaging with music throughout life could form part of this lifestyle advice, alongside factors including exercise, eating a healthy diet, giving up smoking and not drinking too much alcohol.”

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