Music lessons have a positive impact on brain health in older adults and can even lead to an increase in gray matter, according to a recent study. The findings spark hope for a new non-pharmaceutical intervention to help protect the brain from gradually declining over time.
Many of us are concerned about what will happen to our brains as we age. Even excluding serious conditions like dementia, some loss of cognitive functioning is almost inevitable. While some drug treatments are available, they’re not suitable for everyone, so there’s been a push toward other interventions that could also help stop brain aging in its tracks.
Previous studies have found that taking part in musical activities can be hugely beneficial for the wellbeing of older people, and recent research adds to this by demonstrating how music lessons can actually increase the volume of gray matter in the brain.
The team recruited 132 people aged between 62 and 78. All participants were retired, and none had ever taken music lessons for longer than a six-month period at any point in their lives.
“We wanted people whose brains did not yet show any traces of plasticity linked to musical learning. Indeed, even a brief learning experience in the course of one’s life can leave imprints on the brain, which would have biased our results,” explained first author Damien Marie in a statement.
To see whether there might be a difference between practical and theoretical music classes, the participants were split into two groups. One had piano lessons, while the other took part in what the authors called “musical culture” classes – these comprised musical analysis and appreciation, music theory, and elements of music history, but actually making music (e.g., through singing or clapping) was avoided.
In both cases, the classes were for one hour per week. They were expected to practice or complete homework for 30 minutes per day, five days a week. The study lasted for one year, and the participants were also followed up six months later.
“After six months, we found common effects for both interventions,” said senior author Clara James. “Neuroimaging revealed an increase in grey matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, including cerebellum areas involved in working memory. Their performance increased by 6 percent and this result was directly correlated to the plasticity of the cerebellum.”
The researchers clarified that it’s not possible to conclude that musical training was restoring areas of the brain where aging was already causing damage – rather, it looks like the training can help prevent aging in particular regions.
There were some differences between the groups. For example, gray matter volume in the right primary auditory cortex – which is important in sound processing – did decline in the music theory group, whereas it remained stable in the piano group. Other factors, like the amount of time spent practicing, did have an impact on participants' results, so it may not be enough to just enroll yourself in a few lessons.
Overall, though, the results show that both playing and listening to music can be a fun and drug-free way of promoting better cognitive health in an aging population. The authors say they now want to test the intervention in those with more severe symptoms, a condition known as mild cognitive impairment, which in some is a precursor to serious diseases like dementia.
So, if you’ve been thinking of having music lessons, or just getting more serious about music appreciation, you may find the benefits are even greater than you bargained for.
The study is published in Neuroimage: Reports.