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Neuroscience offers proof that music can boost brain activity at any age

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12th Jun 2018

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Older adults grow as many new brain cells as young people and music could be one of your allies to boost brain activity!

Since Dr. Marian Diamond’s pioneering research proved that our brains stay “plastic” throughout our lives, more and more studies have reinforced this finding, contributing to an increasing awareness of the fact that keeping our brains engaged helps slow down cognitive decline. A more recent study (April 2018), by Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute has found proof that older adults grow just as many new brain cells as young people. In other words, healthy older men and women still have the capacity to improve and boost their brain activity by keeping their minds engaged and stimulated. How uplifting is that!

“We found that older people have a similar ability to make thousands of hippocampal new neurons from progenitor cells as younger people do” (…) “We also found equivalent volumes of the hippocampus (a brain structure used for emotion and cognition) across ages.” Dr. Maura Boldrini

Music can boost brain activity

However, it is also true that older individuals form fewer new blood vessels within brain structures. That is why we can never remind you enough that moderate physical exercise, combined with mental exercise, is of utmost importance to help prevent decline in vascularization and blood supply to the brain. Therefore, the ability to create more brain cells and keep your mind sharp is there – it’s just a matter of maintaining a synergy between body and brain. And we know there are very simple and enjoyable activities you can do to help you achieve this. That’s why today’s blog post will be devoted to the topic of music and how it can actually boost your brain power and help you grow just as many new brain cells as younger people!

The benefits of simply listening to the music you enjoy

Speaking of keeping our brains stimulated as we grow older, some studies suggest that music can engage all four hemispheres of your brain, leading to an optimization of our brain power. How pleasant would it be to know that keeping your mind sharp and focused can be achieved by something as enjoyable as playing a musical instrument or listening to the music you enjoy?

the benefits of listening to the music you enjoy

Music can help you concentrate

However, with all the distractions in today’s digital world, it can be challenging to maintain focus and relax. Fortunately, there are habits that can help enhance your ability to concentrate. One of the easiest and most enjoyable habits could be simply listening to the music you enjoy more often. The reason music can help you concentrate and keep you more engaged is related to the fact that music stimulates neurotransmitters to produce dopamine that directly affect your:

  • Mood
  • Productivity
  • Efficiency
  • Creativity

Dopamine is known to be the brain’s “motivation molecule” and is directly related to the pleasure-reward system. It’s like when you eat chocolate or the feeling you get when your favorite song unexpectedly plays on the radio: it makes you feel happy! But it also helps you be more productive. Dr. Lesiuk’s research studied how music affects workplace performance and how people who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music reduced their stress levels.

Music can help you concentratePersonal preference appears to be another important component to the ability music has to increase brain function. Simply listening to music you like can increase focus because it taps into regions of the brain that control your emotions. So, listening to music that evokes positive feelings could lead to greater levels of productivity. However, this study also concluded that older people spend less time listening to music. This, again, is why we felt it was so important to raise awareness and get you to put your old records on and simply feel good and confirm what Plato once wrote more than 2 thousand years ago:

 “music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”

Listening to music can help soothe pain

Did you know that listening to your favorite music on your way to work or while you’re at home can be way more than just a fun distraction? A team of Swedish researchers found that frequently listening to music you love can help balance cortisol levels – the stress hormone. And it can also be a great pain-killer by simultaneously distracting you and boosting your positive emotions. For this reason, listening to music is associated with reducing both pain and stress, as well as having the potential to improve symptom control in chronic pain patients, like fibromyalgia patients. This is a rather old notion and has been widely covered in research, coined in the 50s as ‘audio-analgesia’. Nevertheless, the mechanisms underlying the potential pain-reducing effect of music remain to be clarified, as there are still doubts surrounding whether listening to music has a direct effect on soothing pain or if it just makes it easier for us to cope with pain.

Listening to music can help soothe pain

Classical Music – the Mozart effect

While music can help increase focus, its efficacy can depend on the genre of music. Research done at the University of Helsinki showed that classical music has been shown to enhance brain function. Listening to classical music enhances the activity of neurons involved in dopamine secretion and the regulation of the neurons involved in neurodegeneration. Therefore, music by classical composers such as Bach, Mozart or Beethoven could help get us focused for an exam or a work project. For classical musical lovers, this is really good news and it appears to be true, regardless of age. In fact, a joint study between Kyoto and Harvard Universities analysed the so-called “Mozart effect”. They concluded that in children aged 8 to 9 and seniors aged 65 and 75, both children and seniors performed better while listening to Mozart than while listening to dissonant music or no music at all. Again, seniors’ brain function also improved when listening to classical music, showing once more that brain plasticity is present, even in later life.

Music helps dementia patients recall memories and emotions

Neurologist Oliver Sacks, best known for the documentary “Alive Inside”, says that “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.” By pairing music with everyday activities, patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s can develop a rhythm that helps them recall the memory of that activity, improving cognitive ability over time. Here is the trailer of the documentary:

Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience,” says Sacks.

Early Musical Training Benefits Brain Plasticity in Later Life

An August 2012 study led by Dr. Nina Kraus found that older adults who had played a musical instrument as children had a faster brain response to a speech sound than individuals who had never played an instrument – even 40 years after they had stopped learning!

Early Musical Training Benefits Brain Plasticity in Later LifeAs people age, changes occur in the brain that compromise hearing. Older adults typically have a slower response to sounds that change quickly, which can make it difficult to interpret speech. Musicians who continue to play a musical instrument throughout their life generally offset these cognitive declines. These findings suggest that early musical training has a long-lasting, positive effect on how the brain processes sound.

Learning to play a musical instrument can increase blood flow to the brain

A study done in May 2014 found that even learning to play an instrument for a short period of time can increase blood flow to the left hemisphere of the brain. The study was conducted by undergraduate student Amy Spray and Dr G. Meyer from the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool.  The study provided enough evidence to prove that learning to play an instrument boosts brain power and cognitive function in children and adults. And the neural enhancements that are gained through learning to play an instrument early on in life extend well into old age. Musical training keeps your brain sharp as you age and could be an integral part of rehabilitative programs for any older adults coping with cognitive decline.

Learning to play an instrument can increase blood flow to the brain

Music and language share common brain pathways

Many say that music is a universal language and some findings suggest that the areas responsible for music and language share common brain pathways. In a press release, Dr. Amy Spray explained the findings:

“It was fascinating to see that the similarities in blood flow signatures could be brought about after just half an hour of simple musical training. This suggests that the correlated brain patterns were the result of using areas thought to be involved in language processing. Therefore, we can assume that musical training results in a rapid change in the cognitive mechanisms utilised for music perception and these shared mechanisms are usually employed for language.”

As individuals are now becoming more aware of the never-ending list of positive effects of music for their mind and body, there’s no excuse to deny your brain the tune-up it deserves!

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