Singing in a choir or playing a musical instrument can help the over-40s improve their ability to solve complex tasks, a new study has shown.

Researchers from the University of Exeter looked at the data from more than 1,000 people to see how musicality and exposure to music affects brain health.

They found that the ability to solve complicated tasks – executive function – is boosted if an individual plays an instrument, particularly the piano. It also helps to improve memory.

People who carry on playing into their later years see an even greater effect.

The findings showed that brain health improvements are also seen in people who sing, although researchers say this could be due to the social effects of belonging to a choir.

The team looked at the data gathered from PROTECT, an online study that has been running for 10 years.

Anne Corbett, Professor of Dementia Research at the University of Exeter, said: “A number of studies have looked at the effect of music on brain health.

“Our PROTECT study has given us a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between cognitive performance and music in a large cohort of older adults.

“Overall, we think that being musical could be a way of harnessing the brain’s agility and resilience, known as cognitive reserve.

“Although more research is needed to investigate this relationship, our findings indicate that promoting musical education would be a valuable part of public health initiatives to promote a protective lifestyle for brain health, as would encouraging older adults to return to music in later life.

“There is considerable evidence for the benefit of music group activities for individuals with dementia, and this approach could be extended as part of a healthy ageing package for older adults to enable them to proactively reduce their risk and to promote brain health.”

Among those advocating the benefits of playing a musical instrument is 78-year-old Stuart Douglas from Cornwall.

He has always played the accordion and is now a member of the Cober Valley Accordion Band and the Cornish Division of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.

He said: “I learnt to play the accordion as a boy living in a mining village in Fife and carried on throughout my career in the police force and beyond.

“These days I still play regularly, and playing in the band also keeps my calendar full, as we often perform in public.

“We regularly play at memory cafes so have seen the effect that our music has on people with memory loss, and as older musicians ourselves we have no doubt that continuing with music into older age has played an important role in keeping our brains healthy.”

Read the study in International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

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