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Can Musical Instruction Stave Off Mental Decline?


Researchers Find A Possible Link Indicating That
Music May Strengthen Cognitive Function Later In Life

SPECIAL REPORT—A recent study conducted by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta indicates that filling your life with musical instruction and practice may help dramatically curb mental deterioration associated with aging.


Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist with the university’s Department of Neurology and cognitive psychologist Alicia MacKay, PhD, conducted the study with 70 individuals ages 60-83 and divided the participants into three groups, depending on their musical training.


 Those enrolled in the study were segmented into groups, which had at least ten years of musical aptitude, one-to-nine years of instruction or no music training with an instrument.  Participants had similar levels of education and general fitness and did not show any evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.


Tests were given to the members of each group to measure brain function using standard methods that typically reveal decline of mental capability as the body ages, or in cases where a neurodegenerative condition exists such as with Alzheimer’s disease.


“Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging,” said lead researcher Hanna-Pladdy. “Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older.”


Study findings revealed that the high-level musicians who had studied music the longest, performed the best in those tests, followed by those with less training and, lastly, by those with no musical instruction.  In the study, those with long-term musical backgrounds statistically scored significantly higher.


“Based on previous research and our study results, we believe that both the years of musical participation and the age of acquisition are critical,” Hanna-Pladdy says. “There are crucial periods in brain plasticity that enhance learning, which may make it easier to learn a musical instrument before a certain age and thus may have a larger impact on brain development.”


Due to the relatively small number of participants in the study, the findings of optimal cognitive performance of high-level musicians could not be conclusively linked to their years of musical study, according to Hanna-Pladdy, who indicated that more research was needed to further examine the positive effects of learning a musical instrument and practicing it throughout an individual’s life. 


The study was conducted at both Emory University and the University of Kansas Medical Center.  At the time of the study, Hanna-Pladdy was an assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Kansas Medical Center and a research faculty member of the Landon Center on Aging University of Kansas Medical Center.


MacKay, also a former research assistant at the University of Kansas Medical Center, is now an assistant professor of psychology at Tulsa Community College.