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Playing a musical instrument good for brain health in later life - study

Women playing piano
The study found playing keyboard instruments was particularly beneficial for brain health

Playing a musical instrument or singing could help keep the brain healthy in older age, UK researchers suggest.

Practising and reading music may help sustain good memory and the ability to solve complex tasks, their study says.

In their report, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, they say music should be considered as part of a lifestyle approach to maintain the brain.

More than 1,100 people aged over 40, with a mean age of 68, were studied.

Scientists at the University of Exeter observed their brain function data as part of a wider study that has been finding out how brains age, and why people develop dementia.

They looked at the effects of playing an instrument, singing, reading and listening to music, and musical ability.

The researchers compared the cognitive data of those in the study who engaged in music in some way in their lives, with those who never had.

Their results showed that people who played musical instruments benefitted the most, which may be because of the "multiple cognitive demands" of the activity.

Playing the piano or keyboard appeared to be particularly beneficial, while brass and woodwind instruments were good too.

Simply listening to music did not appear to help cognitive health.

The benefit seen with singing might be partly because of the known social aspects of being in a choir or group, the researchers say.

"Because we have such sensitive brain tests for this study, we are able to look at individual aspects of the brain function, such as short-term memory, long-term memory, and problem-solving and how engaging music effects that," lead author Prof Anne Corbett told the BBC.

"Certainly this confirms and cements on a much larger scale what we already know about the benefits of music.

"Specifically, playing an instrument has a particularly big effect, and people who continue to play into an older age saw an additional benefit," she said.

Public health message

In the study, people who read music regularly had better numerical memory.

Prof Corbett said: "Our brain is a muscle like anything else and it needs to be exercised, and learning to read music is a bit like learning a new language, it's challenging."

Researchers did not test potential benefits of taking up a musical hobby for the first time later in life, but Prof Corbett said she believed, based on current evidence, it would be "very beneficial".

Prof Corbett said that, although more research was needed, promoting musical education could form a "valuable" part of a public health message, as would encouraging older adults to return to music in later life.

"The message is around how people can proactively reduce their risk of cognitive decline or dementia, and really thinking about engaging with music as a way of doing that. This study does suggest that it could be part of a much wider lifestyle approach to improving brain health as you age."

However, she said: "It would be naïve to think taking up a musical instrument would mean you won't develop dementia. It's not as simple as that."

Dementia UK said the results were "positive".

"The ability to make or play music - whether by singing or playing an instrument - can continue even when people living with dementia have lost other abilities and means of communication," the charity's Caroline Scates said.

"If you know someone living with dementia who enjoys, or has enjoyed, singing or playing an instrument, it can be beneficial to keep these instruments or sheet music to hand for them to play or read."

Stuart Douglas, 78, has played the accordion regularly since the age of eight. He said it kept his brain "active" and said it helps others too.

"We regularly play at memory cafes so have seen the effect that our music has on people with memory loss and, as older musicians ourselves, we have no doubt that continuing with music into older age has played an important role in keeping our brains healthy."

The study was supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research.