Music evokes strong emotions, usually tied to specific memories. A certain song comes on the radio and suddenly you are whisked away to another time and place. This type of sentimental reaction has long been written off as simple nostalgia. Recently, however, there have been a slew of new research findings regarding the cognitive benefits associated with dementia patients both listening to music and playing musical instruments.
Case in point: a recent study from the University of Helsinki found that listening to classical music such as Brahms and Beethoven releases dopamine (the happy-brain chemical) while enhancing certain genes connected to motor behavior, learning, and memory.
An article in Prevention explains that the way in which music affects the dopamine pathways has also been shown to quiet the genes that are at risk for dementia. According to the article,
In the experiment, classical tunes also seemed to modify genes—in particular a gene known as SNCA—that control the death of neurons, seen with diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.”
Another study based on 157 sets of twins found that those who were musicians or who made music were one-third less likely to develop dementia. The fact that identical twins share 100 per cent of their genetic makeup and non-identical twins share approximately 50 per cent, allowed the scientist to study the link between music and dementia in a much more concise manner. The study focused on sets of twins where only one twin had dementia. This in turn provided them with a clearer idea of what the prevention factors were for the healthy twin.
In a study published in the International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers found that twins who played musical instruments were in fact 36 per cent less likely to develop dementia (after taking into consideration other variables such as education, sex and physical fitness).
In this investigation of music’s influence on cognitive health outcomes, the results from this cotwin control design find that playing an instrument in older adulthood is significantly associated with reduced likelihood of dementia and cognitive impairment. Despite sharing numerous genetic propensities and environmental exposures during formative developmental years, dissimilarities in music engagement were associated with differences in dementia occurrence within twin pairs. Moreover, the association is not explained by education or physical activity.”
Even more amazing are the studies that have found an increase in verbal communication and the restorement of narrative memories in dementia patients who were able to listen to the music of their choice. In other words, music has the potential to actually bring lost memories back to the surface for those already suffering from Alzheimer’s.
The takeaway here? Dust off those records, plug in that Mp3 player, and tune up that instrument. Not only will you enjoy the tunes, your memory will thank you.
Listening to classical music lowers dementia risk via Prevention
Playing a Musical Instrument as a Protective Factor against Dementia and Cognitive Impairment: A Population-Based Twin Study via International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease
Tunes Could Bring Back Memories Loss to Alzheimer’s via Scientific American