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When I was 6 or 7 my Mum asked whether I would like to do piano or ballet lessons. (Note, the supersize option: I was going to be doing one of them!)
I desperately wanted to do ballet, imaging the thought of wearing pretty pink tutus, ballet pumps and springing lightly around the floor like a young gazelle.
Clearly my Mum thought otherwise, as next thing I found myself enrolled in piano lessons, which I dutifully continued on with for the next 10 years. I sometimes wondered why she had given me the option to consider, when she had already determined my path. Perhaps she saved me from my own shortcomings, as I was extremely shortsighted and had a total lack of coordination. I shall never know!

But maybe Mum made the right choice for me. The value of music in young children has been shown in much research to help children with learning. Now research suggests we gain benefit across the lifespan, by continuing to challenge our brain, keeping it more brain fit and more resistant to the effects of ageing.

In an American study, a group of 70 healthy adults aged between 60 to 83 years were put through cognitive testing. The group was divided into three.

• Those with no musical training at all,
• Those who had had at least 10 years of training at some point in their lifetime,
• Those who had at least 10 years of musical training.

All of the participants came from similar backgrounds and had had similar levels of education and all the musicians were amateurs who had started learning a musical instrument from around the age of 10 years.
The majority (50%) had studied piano, 25% had studied woodwind instruments and a smaller number had studied strings, percussion or brass.

The results showed the trend of results correlated to the number of years spent studying music. Those who had spent the longest time with music scored the highest, especially in the area of visuospatial memory, verbal fluency and cognitive flexibility.

The results indicated that learning a musical instrument does appear to protect the brain from those declines in cognitive functioning normally seen with ageing.

It was the time spent, not the age that mattered.

What was particularly interesting was that those who were still playing their instruments actually didn’t perform any better than those who had stopped playing years before (but had spent 10 years or more doing it at some stage) suggesting that it was the duration of time spent on the activity rather than the ability to keep playing as we get older.

The study suggests that kids who learn music in childhood, at the time considered the easiest to learn a new musical instrument will experience a greater impact on brain development.

Looks like Mum was right to make me do piano after all.

But I still think I would have enjoyed the ballet.

Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, Alicia MacKay. The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1037/a0021895

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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