I don’t want to get dementia.
I really, really, really don’t want to get dementia. Almost any other way of dying would be OK with me. Just, please, not that.
And now it seems I will learn to play a musical instrument, too — though whether it ends up being the piano, the saxophone, the flute or the Cross-Granger Kangaroo-Pouch Tone-Tool (yes, it’s a thing) is another matter.
Evidence is mounting that learning an instrument and continuing to play it makes your brain stronger, faster and healthier — and that it can drastically reduce your risk of getting dementia.
A new study of 1,100 older adults, with an average age of 68, “shows that playing a musical instrument is associated with better working memory and executive function,” according to researchers from Exeter, Brunel, and London universities. “We also found positive associations between singing and executive function, and between overall musical ability and working memory,” they added.
Results were better among people who currently played an instrument than among those who had learned to play one as a child but didn’t keep up with it, the researchers found. Those who kept playing typically did so for at least two to three hours a week.
“A comparison of participants who currently play a musical instrument with those who have done previously showed significantly better performance in two of the three measures of working memory … and the working memory composite … in people who currently engage in music,” the researchers said.
The research appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
And this study is no outlier: There is research going back several decades. Other studies have found that, for example, adults who played a musical instrument at some point in their lives typically performed better on cognitive tests than those who didn’t, with better “global cognition, working memory, executive functions, language, and visuospatial abilities.” Musicians had better average long-term, short-term and working memory than nonmusicians.
The brains of professional musicians even look different under an MRI, according to research in the Journal of Neuroscience and the journal Human Brain Mapping. Active musicians may actually have “younger” brains. An overview of research shows.
Seneca Block, a music therapist and an adjunct instructor in psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, says that brain scans even look different depending on the type of instrument a person plays. “You can see the difference between a piano player and a stringed-instrument player,” he says.
Not everyone is convinced. Scientists point out that many of these studies simply show correlation, not causation. Even if musicians score better, on average, than nonmusicians in various tests, it doesn’t prove that playing a musical instrument improves your brain, these skeptics say. It could simply mean that people with better brains end up playing musical instruments.
It’s a reasonable point.
But here’s why the music theory wins.
First, not every study is correlational. In this one, for example, people age 62 to 72 were given an hour of piano training per week for six months. They were also instructed to practice for half an hour each day. At the end of the period, MRIs showed actual physical differences in their brains compared with those of people in the control group. A similar study, in which a group of older people also received six months of piano training, found that those who had been learning the piano showed an increase in gray matter in five different areas of the brain. Another study found that just four months of training — this time on a keyboard harmonica — had an effect on the brains of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who had never before played an instrument. One study even found an effect after just two weeks of music lessons.
Then there was a longitudinal study that followed more than 350 Scottish people from childhood into their 80s. Not only did it distinguish between those who had learned an instrument and those who hadn’t, it was also able to compare cognitive tests that the participants took at age 11 and at age 70. Bottom line: Music training made a difference. “There was a small, statistically significant positive association between experience of playing a musical instrument and change in general cognitive ability between ages 11 and 70,” the researchers found. And the more training a person had, the better their cognitive performance.
Probably the most remarkable study was one involving pairs of twins 65 and older in Sweden. Researchers looked at 157 cases where one of the twins had cognitive impairment or dementia and the other didn’t. About one-quarter of the pairs were identical, and the rest were fraternal.
Then they looked at which participants had taken up the piano, or the flute, or the double bass, or guitar, or the trombone or the didgeridoo (well, maybe).
Bottom line? The twin who had learned an instrument was less likely — much less likely — to have cognitive impairment or dementia. “Compared to their nonmusician co-twin,” the researchers found, “musicians playing an instrument in older adulthood had a 64% lower likelihood of developing dementia or cognitive impairment.”
A purist might argue that this conclusion, too, is open to question. How do we know that the twin who took up music didn’t have a much healthier brain to begin with? Well, we can’t know that for sure — but remember that that twins share 50% or 100% of their DNA. Another study of twins also confirmed what we could have guessed intuitively: There are many factors that go into whether or not we end up playing an instrument, and most of them are random.
I’ve decided to apply the philosophical principle known as Pascal’s Bet, named after the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who famously decided that it would be logical for him to believe in God. Faith in God, he reasoned, exposed him to far less risk after death than atheism. How much would each option cost him, he asked himself? And what were the downside risks?
It would hardly make sense for me to hold off learning a new instrument until there is more definitive proof that doing so may help prevent dementia. By the time such proof arrives, if it ever does, it may be too late for me. And what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll waste time learning to play music — time others will constructively spend watching high-quality TV programs like “Stamp-Collecting Wars” and “The Real Housewives of Poughkeepsie.”
Bring on the music.