The inventive behavior that might chase away signs of dementia even for those who begin later in life

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  • New research suggests that playing music actively can have a small but positive impact on cognitive function, even in older adults who are already showing signs of dementia.

  • Playing music works in several areas of the brain at the same time.

  • Other important habits, like staying active and being social, can also help reduce your risk of cognitive decline.

Music works wonders for your mood, but did you know it could give your brain a boost too? In fact, playing music – not just listening – has a positive effect on your perception, even if you are already showing signs of dementia, new research shows.

For a new meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh looked at nine studies involving 495 participants over the age of 65 with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia. The studies specifically assessed older adults with MCI who participated in improvising music, playing existing music, singing, playing instruments, or other forms of music making.

Mild cognitive impairment was defined as “a preclinical condition between normal cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s disease”. Dementia, an umbrella term for various age-related cognitive symptoms, has been defined as “a debilitating disease that can dramatically change the cognitive, emotional, and social aspects of a person’s life.”

The discovery, the knowledge, the find? Making music has a small but statistically significant impact on cognitive functions such as thinking and memory, says PhD lead author Jennie L. Dorris. Rehabilitation Science student and PhD student in the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Pittsburgh.

This is because playing music is working on multiple areas of your brain at the same time. “You coordinate your motor movements with the sounds you hear and the visual patterns of the written music,” explains Dorris. “Music has been called a ‘whole-body workout’ for the brain, and we think it’s unique because it engages multiple systems at the same time.”

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As a bonus, music habits also had a positive effect on mood and quality of life. So make music regardless of your age. “Because we’ve seen a positive effect in all active music-making activities, we know that people have options and can choose the activity they prefer,” says Dorris. “Whether you sing in a choir, join a drum circle, or register for an online music course where you learn to compose, the only important thing is that you actively participate in the music process. “

Of course, reconnecting to the guitar that has accumulated in your basement is just one step you can take to keep your brain sharp. And the sooner you start, the better: Of older adults who haven’t already had Alzheimer’s, 15% are likely to have mild cognitive impairment. The researchers found that up to 38% of them will develop Alzheimer’s disease within five years.

To reduce your risk of dementia, it’s also important to stay active most days of the week, eat a Mediterranean diet, stay social by connecting with loved ones, and seeking help with chronic health problems such as depression, high cholesterol, and insomnia . All of these parts add up over time, making for a healthier body – and mind – for years to come.

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