"A way of harnessing the brain’s agility and resilience": New study links playing an instrument to better memory in older age

Older people singing around a piano
(Image credit: Getty Images/monkeybusinessimages)

If you're reading MusicRadar then a) thanks and b) the chances are you're a musician or music-maker of some kind. If so, we've got good news for you.

A new study by Exeter University confirms that playing a musical instrument, or even joining a choir is strongly linked to better memory and thinking skills in older age.

Those who played an instrument scored higher than those who didn't, particularly, it turns out, if they played piano

The research project studied data from over a thousand older adults, looking at how much experience those people had of playing instruments or singing in groups, and compared that to brain health, including executive function - the process of planning, remembering and prioritising tasks. Those who played an instrument scored higher than those who didn't, particularly, it turns out, if they played piano.

Professor of dementia research at the university, Anne Corbett, said “Overall, we think that being musical could be a way of harnessing the brain’s agility and resilience, known as cognitive reserve.

"Our Protect study has given us a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between cognitive performance and music in a large cohort of older adults.

“Our findings indicate that promoting musical education would be a valuable part of public health initiatives to promote a protective lifestyle for brain health, as would encouraging older adults to return to music in later life."

Caroline Scates, deputy director of admiral nurse development at Dementia UK, added, “The results of this study are positive, and echo similar research into the benefits of both listening to and playing music for people living with dementia.

“Music can provide a valuable form of communication for people living with dementia, including listening to music that the person may have a connection with even in the later stages of the condition. 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.

“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.”

Will Groves

I'm lucky enough to be MusicRadar's Editor-in-chief while being, by some considerable distance, the least proficient musician on the editorial team. An undeniably ropey but occasionally enthusiastic drummer, I've worked on the world's greatest music making website in one capacity or another since its launch in 2007. I hope you enjoy the site - we do.