Getting older is something most of us are a bit wary about. Although ageing is a privilege, none of us want to experience ourselves or our loved ones psychologically deteriorating.
So it’s pretty incredible that music help slow the decline of cognitive function in older people.
How does this happen, and how can we make the most of it?
Why does cognitive degeneration happen as we get older?
Our ability to learn new things and remember information depends on our brain’s plasticity, its ability to reorganise connections between neurons in order to store new information. As we age, brain plasticity tends to diminish, making it more difficult to learn and retain new things. This is accompanied by a loss of the grey matter in which our neurons reside, leading to cognitive decline and memory loss.
The type of memory most immediately impacted by a loss of plasticity is our ‘working memory’. This allows us to recall information long enough to perform an action, for example if you noticed you needed petrol when you arrived at your friend’s house, and remembered to get it on the way home.
The proof is in the pudding
A study at the University of Geneva found that playing music actively resulted in a significant increase in grey matter volume in four brain areas, linked to high-level cognitive function, including the cerebellum.
The study involved 100 retired people who had never practiced music before. They divided their participants into two groups - the first group received one-hour piano lessons each week with the expectation that its members would practice five days a week for 30 minutes, and the second practiced music awareness in active listening sessions. They were taught basic music concepts, including learning to identify individual instruments.
After six months, common effects were found for both groups. Neuroimaging revealed an increase in grey matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning in all participants, including cerebellum areas involved in working memory. Their performance increased by 6% and this result was directly correlated to the plasticity of the cerebellum.
However, the researchers also found a difference between the two groups. In the piano group, the volume of grey matter remained stable in the right primary auditory cortex - a key region for sound processing, whereas it decreased in the active listening group. Therefore, it’s impossible to claim that music can rejuvenate the brain, only preventing ageing in specific regions. And you’re better off playing the music yourself, if you can.
Learning to play an instrument or actively listening to music are cross-modal activities, eliciting not only the closely related sensorimotor domains (close or near transfer, e.g., auditory processing) but also more distant ones, for instance, processing speed, affective domains, memory, language, executive function, or abstract reasoning, etc.
- Dr Damien Marie
That’s not all…
According to the National Institutes of Health, music has the power to evoke strong positive emotions and elevate your mood. It can lower your body’s level of cortisol, a hormone that can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. It can also trigger other chemical reactions in the brain, stimulating positive feelings.
For ageing adults who have age-related memory issues - such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or Parkinson’s disease, music has the power to actually bring back memories. Music can also encourage us to stay in the present - Alzheimers patients often move along to a beat and sing lyrics to a song, even if they can’t remember current events. It can be a way for those who are non-verbal to communicate to their loved ones.
Research has also shown that the same neurotransmitter used by our brain to send sensations of pain is also stimulated by sound; when both happen at the same moment, pain may not feel as intense.
Even if music doesn’t necessarily help these often age-related illnesses, music encourages communication and interaction, for us to feel connected to each other - loneliness is a huge issue for older people, and music can be a very social tool.
There seems to be no end to the benefits of music in old age, and the potential it has for keeping us young.
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