Practicing and listening to music may prevent cognitive decline

Credit: Danie Franco / Unsplash

As we age, cognitive decline is a natural part of the aging process.

However, recent research has shown that practicing and listening to music can alter cognitive decline in healthy seniors by stimulating the production of gray matter in the brain.

The study, led by the University of Geneva (UNIGE), HES-SO Geneva and EPFL, found that music practice and active listening can prevent working memory decline, promote brain plasticity, and increase gray matter volume.

Brain plasticity, or the brain’s ability to remodel itself, changes throughout our lives.

This is demonstrated by changes in brain morphology and connections that occur as we learn new skills or overcome the consequences of a stroke.

However, as we age, brain plasticity decreases, and gray matter, where our neurons are located, is lost. This is known as “brain atrophy,” and gradually, cognitive decline appears.

Working memory, a core cognitive function, is one of the cognitive functions that suffer the most from cognitive decline.

Working memory is the process in which we retain and manipulate information briefly to achieve a goal, such as remembering a telephone number long enough to write it down or translating a sentence from a foreign language.

The study, conducted among 132 healthy retirees from 62 to 78 years of age, found that music practice and active listening prevented working memory decline and promoted brain plasticity, associated with gray matter volume increase.

The participants had never practiced music before and were randomly assigned to two groups regardless of their motivation to play an instrument.

One group had piano lessons, while the other group had active listening lessons. The classes lasted for one hour, and both groups were required to do homework for half an hour every day.

After six months, the team found common effects for both interventions.

Neuroimaging revealed an increase in gray 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.

The quality of sleep, the number of lessons followed over the course of the intervention, and the daily training quantity, had a positive impact on the degree of improvement in performance.

The researchers also found a difference between the two groups.

In the pianists, the volume of gray matter remained stable in the right primary auditory cortex—a key region for sound processing, whereas it decreased in the active listening group.

In addition, a global brain pattern of atrophy was present in all participants. Therefore, the team cannot conclude that musical interventions rejuvenate the brain. They only prevent aging in specific regions.

The study’s findings suggest that practicing and listening to music can promote brain plasticity and cognitive reserve, and these playful and accessible interventions should become a major policy priority for healthy aging.

The next step for the team is to evaluate the potential of these interventions in people with mild cognitive impairment, an intermediate stage between normal aging and dementia.

In conclusion, the study found that practicing and listening to music can delay cognitive decline and promote brain plasticity in healthy seniors.

While these interventions do not rejuvenate the brain, they prevent aging in specific regions, providing a playful and accessible way to maintain cognitive function as we age.

If you care about brain health, please read studies about fruits that could slow down brain aging and cognitive decline, and scientists find a new drug to stop brain tumor growth.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about antioxidants that could help reduce dementia risk, and higher magnesium intake could help benefit brain health.

The study was conducted by Clara James et al and published in Neuroimaging: Reports.

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