Got an ear for music? That along with some sheet music and perhaps an instrument or two may just be enough to help counter age-based mental decline and prevent conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s from taking root in an ageing brain, a team of Duke University researchers, led by cognitive neuroscientist Edna Andrews, found.
Building on her fascination with—and seminal discoveries about—the relationship between learning and practising a language and the brain’s resilience against neurodegenerative diseases, Andrews and her team expanded their focus to look at a different kind of language: music.
Specifically, they investigated whether musicianship could impact cognitive brain reserve, which, simply put, is a way to qualify the resilience of the brain in the face of various diseases. High levels of cognitive reserve can help to stave off dementia, Parkinson’s disease or even multiple sclerosis for years. These reserves are quantified through structural measurements of the brain’s grey matter—or its processors—and white matter—the insulated writing that enables communication between different areas of the brain.
So, Andrews and her team embarked on a study to understand the impact of musicianship on boosting cognitive brain reserves. From previous studies, the team knew that white matter integrity decreased with age in two specific fibre tracts of non-musicians.
Using an advanced MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging, the team scanned the brains of eight different musicians between the age of 20 and 67, each of whom practised an average of three hours a day and had gained years’ of performance experience. They honed in on the two fibre tracts identified in the earlier studies to see whether musicianship had an impact on their white matter integrity.
Andrews—herself a musician and composer—and her team observed that the musicians maintained higher white matter integrity in the two fibre tracts across both hemispheres of brain, suggesting that highly proficient musicianship can increase cognitive brain reserve as one becomes older.
The findings, which the team published in Brain Sciences in 2021, add another option to the existing list of lifestyle changes, which already includes diet and exercise, that can improve brain health. And while this option may be more demanding than changing diet or exercising more, the neurological changes resulting from the acquisition and maintenance of language and musical capabilities have the potential to endure longer.
“Picking up a new language or an instrument should not be pursuits confined to a young child,” stressed Andrews who is a strong advocate for lifelong learning not just for its health benefits but also for the satisfaction is brings.
It appears, then, that one of the kindest ways to treat the brain is by learning a new language or how to play an instrument—and a little bit of practice wouldn’t hurt either.
Adapted from Keeping the ageing brain connected with words and music.