Playing an instrument, singing can help the brain defend against dementia

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — It’s no secret music has many hidden powers. Studies have revealed how our favorite tunes can do everything from make us feel happier to actually making children smarter in school. Now, a new study finds participating in music — through singing or using an instrument — can help the brain ward off the effects of cognitive decline.

Researchers say music boosts the brains of patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or those with mild cognitive impairment. They add music therapy also improves their quality of life and mood.

“We are excited to see these results,” says study lead author Jennie Dorris, a rehabilitation scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, in a statement to SWNS. “Participating in music, like singing in a choir or playing in a drum circle, is a safe, engaging activity. Our research demonstrates it can support cognition at a critical time for older adults facing cognitive decline.”

Improving quality of life to battle cognitive decline

Such interventions could support the mental, emotional, and social well-being of millions, Dorris notes. The study pooled data from nine trials totaling about 500 people with dementia or MCI. The group completed mental assessments before and after interventions that involved singing and playing musical instruments.

“Music had a significant effect on cognitive functioning for older adults with probable MCI or dementia,” Dorris reports.

Up to one in five people over age 65 have MCI, which increases their risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms include forgetting recent events, repeating the same questions, struggling with problem-solving tasks, and being very easily distracted. The findings back evidence that lifestyle changes – such as taking up a hobby – can improve the condition.

“Music showed promise to support quality of life and mood,” Dorris continues. “Music positively impacts the crucial outcome of cognitive functioning for older adults.”

The music therapy lasted between 30 minutes and two hours, with the participants attending these sessions once to five times a week. These individuals, all in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, also underwent examinations for anxiety and depression during the study.

Music can help dementia patients and their caregivers as well

Dorris and the team, reporting their findings in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, say the results demonstrate a “clinically meaningful effect.”

“This is impactful for older adults with dementia, their caregivers, their physicians, and those who provide wellness programming,” the lead author explains.

“The results showed the cognitive functioning scores of older adults with probable MCI or dementia who participated in active music-making were statistically significantly different than those who did not. This analysis demonstrates active music-making is the key ingredient to elicit this effect. Further, all studies utilized either re-creating music by singing or playing instruments or improvisation. Individual studies showed potential to have positive effects on mood and quality of life.”

According to the CDC, dementia affects more than five million people in the United States; a figure experts expect to rise to 14 million by 2060. With no cure in sight, there is an increasing focus on preventative measures such as healthy diets and habits.

“With an ever increasing prevalence of dementia around the world it is critical to identify affordable, safe interventions to support affected older adults,” Dorris concludes. “Active music-making has shown to be an effective intervention. Developing more such activities and offering these programs widely could potentially provide millions with critical support for their cognitive, emotional and social well-being.”

Previous studies find people who play musical instruments have super-connected brains. These bonds between the hemispheres are even stronger in those who start learning to play at younger ages.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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