Music is not only a pleasure for our brains, it seems that learning it at an old age can help prevent grey matter loss. This non-medicinal intervention would be a very interesting way of delaying the onset of dementia and loss of cognitive abilities associated with ageing.
Recently, a team of researchers recruited 1 a group of 132 elderly people (aged 62–78) who were already retired and had never taken music lessons for more than six months. This was important to avoid the presence of previous changes to the brain due to that prior musical learning and be able to correlate the effects of the current intervention with the brain characteristics of the participants. For this research, participants were split into two groups, one which received music lessons which involved practising music and another whose classes were only theoretical (history of music, music theory, etc). For one year, the participants participated in one hour music classes per week and were expected to practice for half an hour five days a week during the study period. Thereafter, they were followed up for six months.
At that time, the researchers imaged their brains. They observed increased grey matter in four brain regions involved in high-level cognitive functioning, including cerebellum areas involved in working memory, in all participants, regardless of whether they learned to play music or just about it. However, there were some differences between groups as well. For instance, grey matter volume in the right primary auditory cortex – which is important in sound processing – decreased in the music theory group, but not in the piano group. Despite this result, it is unclear to which extent daily practice affected the results, so a few classes may not be enough to cause big enough changes.
Thus, it does seem like learning music can prevent grey matter loss in older adults. Being as they were “healthy” adults, it remains to be seen whether such an intervention can improve the symptoms of people showing signs of mild cognitive decline, a precursor to dementia. Be it as it may, it is surely a positive experience for the senses and a potentially better one for the brain.