We know exercise helps strengthen our minds and our bodies. We know that taking on new challenges keeps the brain sharp through middle age and beyond. But now new research — and a new public television documentary — make a strong case that engagement with music, dance and other arts may be just as powerful for preserving mental health and acuity throughout our lives.
A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience shows that people who learned to play a musical instrument as children appear to experience less decline in brain function as they age. In tests of memory and cognitive ability, older adults who had learned to play an instrument in their youth, and who played the instrument for at least 10 years, outperformed adults without musical training.
"Behaviors can change your brain," says the study’s lead author, Emory University assistant professor of neurology, radiology and imaging sciences Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, herself a flutist. "Musical activity requires years of practice and is a challenging cognitive exercise." Remaining musically active throughout adulthood, or returning in middle age to an instrument learned in childhood, also appeared to bring benefits to the brain, although it was unclear from the research whether taking up an instrument for the first time in adulthood provided similar advantages. (Other studies have found beneficial effects from learning a second language or taking on similarly challenging, long-term tasks requiring practice.)
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Photo courtesy of Pavel K/Shuttestock.com