Could Learning a Musical Instrument Lower Your Dementia Risk?

One undeniable truth in life is that none of us are getting any younger!

(I’m especially reminded of this every time I put on my glasses to write these articles for you!)

And as the years fly by, it’s natural to start thinking about the health of your brain.

The occasional lapses in memory, the slower reaction times… those are par for the course when it comes to aging.

But many Americans—about 5.5 million—are living with much more serious symptoms, like the loss of major brain and motor functions from Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Disturbingly, reports from the National Institute on Aging expect this number to nearly triple to 16 million over next three decades.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take today to avoid becoming a statistic.

You don’t need any pricey prescription pills or therapies…

An unconventional method for ultimate brain protection

According to an emerging body of research, you can drastically lower your dementia risk by learning to play an instrument—no matter what your age.

A 2018 paper published in the Public Library of Science Journal looked at the effects of musical practice on cognitive decline. They conducted a meta-analysis of 13 studies with participants over the age of 59.

Nine of the studies compared cognitive decline in musicians versus non-musicians, and four of the studies observed the effects of short-term musical training programs on cognition.

The analysis overwhelmingly illustrated the major brain protecting benefits of playing music…

Researchers found that practicing an instrument helped to not only boost certain parts of the brain, but also protect areas that typically decline with aging, like:

  • Perceptual capacity: Your brain’s ability to process information
  • Processing speed: How quickly that information is processed
  • Inhibition: Your ability to “tune things out” that interfere with what you’re focusing on
  • Attention span

Musical older adults excel cognitively

In another 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuropsychology, researchers studied 70 older adults—some musicians and some non-musicians—with ages ranging from 60 to 83 years old.

All participants completed the same comprehensive neuropsychological test. Results showed that the musicians excelled in:

  • Non-verbal memory: Your ability to store and recover information about things like faces, sounds, songs, smells, and feelings
  • Executive processes: Your working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control

The researchers concluded that playing music can effectively help preserve cognitive function as you age.

My “musical mid-life crisis”

I can personally relate to this approach. Though most people associate me with the drums, I also played guitar while growing up—but was never very good at it…

And even though I wasn’t great at it, I’d still pick up my guitar from time to time because honestly, I just felt good while playing it!

By the age of 41, I had what you might call a “musical mid-life crisis.” I decided to quit Rusted Root, with whom I had a beautiful career, to focus on my family.

But after stepping away from it all for a few years, I realized that I missed playing music dearly. I was craving something new. So I decided to dust off my old guitar…

A few times a week, I’d practice some finger strengthening exercises on YouTube. Then I’d just fiddle around on the guitar, experimenting with various sounds and chords.

Every so often, I’d stumble across chords that sounded good together. And then a song would emerge…

Ten years later at age 51, I’ve since formed a new band, The Sun King Warriors, where I sing and play rhythm guitar along with a great group of guys.

The band keeps me active and on my toes with songwriting and memorizing new music.

But as fun as it is to do this, in the back of mind, I now know something even more important is at work here…

I’m challenging my brain and giving it a better chance of staying healthy well into my 50s and beyond.

Your plan for a brighter, sharper brain

How about you?

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try playing music, but feared you wouldn’t be any good at it. Or perhaps you played music as a kid, or used to play, but haven’t picked up an instrument in years. Well, here’s your chance!

And the good news is, the research shows you don’t need to be perfect to get the invaluable brain benefits. All you need is the willingness to try—and to keep at it!

If you’re not sure what instrument you want to play, head to your local music store to try some out. Once you decide, you can find affordable options for bringing your instrument of choice home—like renting or purchasing second-hand. You can also find lots of free lessons for just about any instrument on YouTube, or opt for private or online lessons.

Whatever you choose, try to make time to practice three times a week. Take your time, be patient with yourself, and have fun!”

The bottom line: While there’s truly no risk in giving it a try… the risk of not trying is significant!

And the sooner you get started, the quicker you can begin enjoying all the benefits playing an instrument has to offer. I’d love to hear what instrument you’ve decided to try—drop me a line on my Facebook page!

Be Well,

Jim Donovan, M.Ed.

P.S. – If you’re interested in more brain protecting techniques, or in learning more about how to activate your cognitive brain abilities, you might be interested in my Sound Mind Protocol. Simply click here to learn more about this innovative tool or to get started today.

SOURCES:

Rafael Román-Caballero. Musical practice as an enhancer of cognitive function in healthy aging – A systematic review and meta-analysis. (2018). PloS One, 13(11). Retrieved from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6258526/

Hanna-Pladdy B1, MacKay A. (2011).The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology. May;25(3):378-86. Retrieved from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21463047

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About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.