Playing a musical instrument as a child could improve thinking skills in later life. Researchers looked at more than 400 older people, around 40 per cent of whom had played a musical instrument in their lifetime — mainly the piano.
These people were given a battery of tests to measure their brainpower, every three years between the ages of 70 to 82.
People who had experience with a musical instrument performed better on tests of processing speed — meaning their brain worked more quickly — and were better at tests which combined visual and spatial abilities.
The results were small, but significant, even after taking into account other factors which could affect people’s brains as they aged, including their childhood intelligence, years spent in education, whether they smoked, and their level of physical activity.
The study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, concluded that learning to read music and mastering the precise movements of a musical performance could enhance people’s cognitive abilities for years to come
The study involved 420 people born in 1936 in the Edinburgh and Lothian areas of Scotland. Among these, 167 people had played a musical instrument, with 39 people still doing so at the age of 82
The study authors conclude that learning to read music and mastering the precise movements of a musical performance could enhance people’s cognitive abilities for years to come.
Dr Judith Okely, lead author of the study from Edinburgh Napier University, said: ‘We see these results as an exciting starting point for further investigation into how musical experience from across the life course might contribute to healthy ageing.’
The study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, involved 420 people born in 1936 in the Edinburgh and Lothian areas of Scotland.
Among these, 167 people had played a musical instrument, with 39 people still doing so at the age of 82.
Most people had played only one instrument and most had done so in childhood or adolescence, with about two-thirds reporting having played the piano.
The study found people with greater musical experience, less musical experience, or who had never played a musical instrument, all showed a similar level of decline in tests between the age of 70 and 82.
But those with greater experience of playing a musical instrument consistently performed slightly better in the tests of processing speed and visuo-spatial skills.
This suggests playing a musical instrument does not slow down cognitive decline, but may provide a boost to the brain which can still be seen decades later.
However more research is needed before music lessons can be recommended as a way to keep people mentally sharp, because other childhood advantages in children given music lessons may have contributed to the findings.
The researchers are planning further studies exploring other aspects of ageing such as wellbeing, and would like to hear from people, especially those who are retired, with a wide range of musical experiences, including singing, dancing, performing, teaching and listening to music.