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Learn a musical instrument to slow aging and stay healthy

August 28, 2014

You may be familiar with the older woman whose random drum solo at a music shop went viral last year. Aside from earning bragging rights, the talented drummer was also practicing healthy aging, whether she was aware of it or not. According to a Northwestern University study, learning to play a musical instrument can improve hearing and keep seniors mentally sharp.

Anti-aging effects of learning an instrument
When looking at Beach Boys member Al Jardine and The Beatles front​ man Paul McCartney, the age-defying effects of musical talent seem to make sense. Playing an instrument can "change the architecture of your brain," noted CBS Local, and it can also help older adults perform better on cognitive tests. Besides being a fun activity, music has multiple benefits for a person's mental abilities and can be a fun part of a healthy lifestyle for seniors.

Older adults' lifestyle habits and cognition were studied in one report published in the journal Neuropsychology. The researchers found that participants with musical skills had better physical and mental abilities, including those that related to motor skills and spatial judgment, which typically decline as a person grows older. Based on these results, it may be that learning a musical instrument can actually reverse the effects of aging in some ways.

And the benefits are anything but short-lived. According to the study, even musical skill that was learned at a young age can improve a person's mind in his or her later years. The research included adults between the ages of 55 and 76 whose cognitive response time was monitored as they listened to a repetitive sound. Those who had played an instrument at  any point in their lives, even as far back as 40 years prior, had a response one millisecond faster than their non-musical peers.

"Being a millisecond faster may not seem like much, but the brain is very sensitive to timing and a millisecond compounded over millions of neurons can make a real difference in the lives of older adults. These findings confirm that the investments that we make in our brains early in life continue to pay dividends years later," Michael Kilgard, Ph.D., told the Journal of Neuroscience. 

Regardless of when you learned how to play, you can still reap the positive effects of music. But if you never got the chance, you don't have to worry. Musical skill can be learned at any age, and the benefits start immediately. 

How you can get started
If you're interested in learning an instrument or expanding upon your existing abilities, check with your assisted living community, as lessons may already be offered to residents. If not, there are many additional resources that can provide you with step-by-step instruction. First, check music stores in your area. Often times, workers there can point you in the direction of several recommended resources. While you're there, you should pick up an instrument and any other necessary materials if you don't already have one. Guidebooks and instructions for beginners are typically available at these stores, if you'd prefer to learn on your own.

The Internet is also a great resource for finding musical help. In addition to providing a list of teachers in your area, it could also offer quick tips for learning an instrument without the help of a book or professional. A YouTube search for "guitar lessons" or "piano tutorials" can pull up straightforward instruction on a variety of songs to learn. Choose which song you'd like to start with, and go from there. All you need is an Internet connection and an instrument to begin your music lesson.