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Take up (or return to) an instrument – it’s good for you, and it’s fun!

Playing a musical instrument requires the simultaneous involvement of multiple areas from both hemispheres of the brain, making it a particularly appropriate activity for those seeking to keep their brains active!  For a striking visual representation of this, we would recommend you visit the following:

Hold dementia at bay – learn to play

A study of twins, in which only one of each pair suffers from dementia, suggests that playing a musical instrument during older adulthood seems to confer some sort of protection from the condition. 

What causes this is unclear.  One possibility is that the complex brain activity involved in playing an instrument boosts cognitive reserve, and thus staves off the onset of cognitive decline.  Another suggestion is that the multiple connections developed through playing help to compensate for age-related failures elsewhere in the brain's neural pathways.

The twin study doesn’t address the question of how long participants had been playing: for some, this may have been a life-long hobby.  However, other research on late-starter keyboard players demonstrated that, after 6 months of piano lessons, these older adults showed significantly better executive function (planning, strategy, attention to detail, etc) and working memory than a matched, non-playing control group.  So there is definitely scope to benefit, even as a late-starter.

Playing an instrument in mid/later life is good for you in other ways too, by:

Keeping fingers active.  A study of arthritis sufferers who learned to play keyboard found that, after four weeks of 4 half-hour practice sessions per week, participants exhibited increased finger strength and dexterity and also increased range of movement.  In addition, subjects reported less arthritic discomfort.

Promoting awareness of posture (and breathing, for wind players).  Through learning to play, many older adults find that they become far more conscious of appropriate vs poor posture.  This then carries into other aspects of their lives, helping to improve a range of posture-related health issues.  Many asthmatics find that learning to play a wind instrument helps them to understand and control their breathing, reducing the impact of their condition.

Reducing stress and boosting immune function.  Listening to music helps to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and promotes levels of an immunoglobulin protein central to immune response – changes which can be measured at the level of gene activation.  In each case, the effect is significantly more marked in those who play compared with those who merely listen to music.

Participating in group music-making is great for health and wellbeing.

Group musical activity improves mood, with effects persisting for 4 – 6 weeks after the activity itself.

Participants in group music projects take less prescribed medication and make fewer doctor visits than those engaged in other creative activities, e.g. craft groups.

Making music with others scores highly on a range of ‘quality of life’ indicators, providing:

·         Purposeful, goal-directed recreation

·         Active engagement with an activity

·         A sense of personal wellbeing and accomplishment

·         Social interaction

·         A boost to self-esteem

Group music-making helps to combat some of the debilitating effects of ageing, such as loneliness, depression and loss of purpose.  Players find that the sense of engagement and belonging provided by their music groups helps them to cope more effectively with negative life events such as divorce, children leaving home, retirement, health concerns and bereavement.  Many deem their engagement with their musical groups to be as, or more, important to their overall wellbeing than good health or contact with family members.

A study of amateur chamber musicians aged between 65 and 94 found that, overwhelmingly, the players considered themselves to be ‘healthy’, even though most of those concerned suffered from conditions such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease and cancer…

Playing an instrument is good for you... 

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