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Blowing That Horn Makes You Smarter, Longer

If you played a musical instrument early in life, you might want to dig your guitar, trumpet, flute or what have you out of the closet. It could be one of the best ways to keep your mind sharp in later life.

A study of adults ages 59 to 80, published in the July issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that those who played an instrument in their youth—and stuck with musical activities for at least 10 years—outperformed their peers in memory tests and cognitive ability.

Moreover, the study suggests that adults who were exposed to musical activities in their younger days—and who sustain that activity—may enhance their reasoning skills and counteract the effects of aging.

The report, from Brenda Hanna-Pladdy at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and Byron Gajewski at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., is the latest in a series of studies that indicate that musical experience and abilities potentially can lead to nonmusical cognitive skills.

(The Frontiers study notes that it remains unclear whether starting to play an instrument in later life—without any previous musical experiences—“affords any cognitive or neural advantages.”)

Of course, a number of activities—reading, playing bridge or completing crossword puzzles— are associated with mental health benefits, Hanna-Pladdy and Gajewski note. Furthermore, the authors add, it’s difficult to determine just how much time individuals in their youth spent on such activities—and, thus, the amount of time needed to produce the best cognitive outcomes.

Just how does playing the piano benefit our brains? Such activities, Hanna-Pladdy and Gajewski report, “are cognitively and motorically complex, tapping into many systems in parallel: auditory, sensorimotor, visuospatial, memory [and] processing speed.” Over time, playing an instrument is likely to yield “differential brain organization,” which, in turn, “has the potential to yield more robust transfer across tasks related to enhanced brain plasticity.”

In other words: Music is good exercise for your mind.


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About Encore

  • Encore examines the changing nature of retirement, from new rules and guidelines for financial security to the shifting identities and priorities of today’s retirees. The blog also explores news that affects retirement, from the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and around the web. Lead bloggers are reporter Catey Hill and senior editor Jeremy Olshan. Other contributors include The Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnists Glenn Ruffenach and Anne Tergesen; the Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Alicia Munnell; and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, Michael Kitces, CFP.