- Music can be a non-pharmacological intervention to stave off age-related declines.
- Musical training contains all the elements of a cognitive training program—concentrated attention, memory, and self-discipline.
Cognitive decline represents a major barrier to healthy aging. A key challenge for successful aging is to discover interventions that prevent age-related cognitive decline. Musical training has the potential to improve cognitive reserve into late life.
Cognitive reserve is defined as the ability of the brain to protect against age-related cognitive impairment (Romeiser et al., 2021). Cognitive reserve allows some people to cope better than others with brain pathology. For example, evidence shows that a set of life experiences such as educational and leisure activities are associated with a slower rate of memory decline in normal aging.
For many, music study is naturally rewarding. However, active engagement with music has enduring cognitive benefits, such as concentration, memory, self-discipline, and confidence. Music could potentially act as a protective factor against normal and pathological cognitive decline.
The available evidence suggests that middle-aged and older adults who have practiced music throughout their lives tend to show cognitive advantage (working memory, immediate verbal recall, and verbal fluency). Advantage appears to be strongest for individuals who began music lessons earlier than later in life.
However, learning instruments later in life contributes to healthy aging. For example, adults over 60 who received piano training (six months) had higher scores in tests of episodic memory and attention compared with those who did not receive piano training (Lesiuk et al., 2018).
Learning a musical instrument involves a wide array of skills that place unique demands on the nervous system. Music is a whole-brain experience. For instance, training on a musical instrument involves a long period of controlled attention, keeping musical passages in working memory, and self-discipline (Bugos et al., 2007). Improvement of working memory transfers to improvement in fluid intelligence (reasoning ability).
Neural plasticity is a biological foundation of the learning brain. New connections are made in our brains when we learn a new skill. Neuroplasticity is what keeps us young. The brain is like a block of clay that can be molded to its environment. And the brain is at its most plastic during the first few years of life. Fortunately, some of the neuroplasticity is with us throughout our life spans, even in our older years. Thus, the cognitive benefits of music education extend from early childhood to old age (Colombo, et al., 2020).
Musical activities often involve social contact, empathy, cooperation, and a sense of belonging with others. Social engagement, as part of music-making, has been shown to prolong life and enhance healthy aging. The ability to connect with others, and learn a respected skill is important. For example, playing music provides older adults the opportunity to share their new skills with family members and friends.
Learning an instrument is one of the best ways to build one’s confidence, and high self-confidence is associated with a positive self-image. And when people’s self-esteem is enhanced, they are more likely to live a healthier lifestyle (Creech, 2019). The feelings of achievement, and competence aligns with self-determination theory providing further evidence that music training may be linked to increased well-being for older adults.
Furthermore, music has the power to evoke strong emotions, intense pleasure, and escaping from everyday life through imagination or the recall of personal memories. Musical experiences induce the release of neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine, serotonin). The same chemical in the brain is associated with the intense pleasure people get from more tangible rewards such as food or addictive drugs.
In sum, evidence has shown that music training enhances cognitive performance (i.e., working memory and processing speed) in healthy older adults. Music training makes unique demands on our brains. However, correlation does not imply causality. Individual differences in personality (curiosity), motivation could be associated with the likelihood of taking music training. But sufficient research exists to support the idea that learning musical skills in later life is a promising intervention to offset the age-related cognitive decline.
Bugos J., Kochar S. (2017). Efficacy of a short-term intense piano training program for cognitive aging: a pilot study. Music. Sci. 21 137–150.
Colombo PJ et al., (2020) Music Training, Neural Plasticity, and Executive Function. Front Integr Neurosci; 14: 41.
Romeiser JL, et al., (2021), Musical instrument engagement across the life course and episodic memory in late life: An analysis of 60 years of longitudinal data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, PloS One; 16(6): e0253053.