Ageing with attitude: Keep your brain in tune by playing an instrument

You may never reach the heights of a professional performer, but learning to play a musical instrument in later life is a great mental workout, says Margaret Jennings.
Ageing with attitude: Keep your brain in tune by playing an instrument

THEY’VE survived the drink, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle and at an average age of 73 they are still prancing around like youngsters live on stage. What is the secret of the Rolling Stones’s stamina — and other musicians of their generation touring the world?

It may well be in the fantastic workout they are giving their brains by playing a musical instrument, which neuroscientists now say causes a symphony of “fireworks” incomparable to any other activity we do.

“It is no mystery why the Rolling Stones are still playing,” says Dr Jan De Vries, a psychologist at Trinity College who is a musician himself.

“They have to, because without it they would die!”

Research has shown that the corpus callosum, a midline structure which connects the two sides of the brain, and integrates motor, sensory, and cognitive information between the cerebral hemispheres, is larger in musicians.

In her book Healthy Aging Brain: The Neuroscience of Making the Most of Your Mature Mind, author Judith Horstman further underlines this, when she says neuroscientists recommend learning a musical instrument as a way to exercise and bolster the brain.

For those of us who have put learning to play an instrument more in the wishful thinking, rather than the ‘must do soon’ category of our bucket list, we may need to take note — so to speak — of the pro-age health benefits, as opposed to dreaming of winning the X-Factor.

Psychologist De Vries, who has particular interest in cognitive neuroscience, used to play the guitar, but this instrument has been overtaken by the piano, which he also teaches.

However since he’s now in his late 50s, his explanation for wanting to return to the novelty of his guitar is perhaps not surprising: “I have the strongest urge to pick it up again. It is like the neural networks in my brain are begging me to find a way of activating them again. I would also like to take up a new instrument to remain young.”

He points out, what is now well established in healthy ageing research, that as the years clock up, our wellness is very much linked to our brain.

“Through education and experience we develop sophisticated neural networks in our brain. By continuing to activate the networks through activity, we ensure we can keep performing them,” he says.

“It’s the old adagium ‘use it or lose’, which is very true and essentially a neural principle.”

So even learning an instrument now, at an older stage of life, would be worth the effort?

That health protective factor — in helping to activate neural growth in the brain — is clearly a bonus.

“Playing music is one of the recognised activities which requires ‘holistic’ processing in the brain and may therefore be a particularly powerful factor in preventing or countering ageing in the brain,” says De Vries.

“It’s the fact that playing a musical instrument requires neural activity in many parts of the brain.

“From a cognitive sense, a massive amount of information has to be processed in emotional centres, because emotional sensitivity and expression is involved and in sensory and motor centres in the brain, because a highly complex interplay between sensation, perception and movement is involved.”

Getting down to that bucket list can be a problem for us all, whatever age —in this case applying ourselves to the time and effort it takes to master a musical instrument.

Other problems, as we age, says the psychologist, are overcoming obstacles such as:

* Learning to read music and developing dexterity – the older brain is much slower in both of these aspects

* Appreciating that understanding is not enough to learn to play. Typically as we get older we compensate for less effective memory and skills learning, with superior understanding, but to a certain extent this is a fallacy in musical learning

* Being disappointed when initial efforts lack the sophistication of their adult musical appreciation; to be like a child again when beginning to learn an instrument is hard for many adults

All is not lost though: “I’ve had several piano students who started playing after their retirement and made significant progress and moreover derived intense pleasure and satisfaction from it,” he says.

“For some of them this had been a lifelong dream, impossible to achieve earlier on in life. Thus it became an immensely enriching factor in their lives.

“Of course, more effort is involved because learning is not as fast as early on in life, but this can make it a real challenge and therefore more meaningful.

"In all honesty, starting to play an instrument later on in life has its limitations in terms of the level that can be achieved, but the frustration that might come with this, is outweighed by the benefits. A good teacher should be able to address this issue.”

This fun TEDvideo explains how learning to play a musical instrument fires up all the parts of your brain

Over 65 by 2031?

Will you be among the 1m people in Ireland aged 65 and over by 2031? That’s an increase of 86.4 % on the current situation. And if you are aged 70 now, you will be among the 136,000 of these, aged 85 or over that year, an increase of 132.8%.

Now is the time to plan Ireland’s investment in services and infrastructure to cope with these changes, a key issue highlighted in the National Social Monitor 2016, produced by Social Justice Ireland.

The National Social Monitor is Social Justice Ireland’s annual contribution to the public debate that is needed on Ireland’s future and how Ireland is performing in terms of promoting the wellbeing of all in society.

You can find out more about Social Justice Ireland, an independent think tank and justice advocacy organisation at

Natural facelifts

Face Yoga: Natural Face Lifting in Just 14 Days, Joan Carter, €7.15

Not another book on face yoga, you smile? Well hold it right there; that smile is face yoga itself! Did you know that we have 55 different muscles in our face?

So the author says, and flexing them in specific ways — even smiling or making ‘funny faces’ — helps maintain their elasticity and flexibility.

But doing face yoga to keep wrinkles and lines at bay isn’t as simple as going around smiling in a silly way all day; there are regular exercises to do, which Carter argues not only give you firmer muscles, but allow blood and oxygen to flow more freely to give your skin badly needed nutrients.

She promises they combat your crow’s feet, double chin, sagging jowls and under-eye bags. Who needs plastic surgeons?

Ageing quote

“Try to keep your soul young and quivering right up to old age —

French novelist George Sand

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Your age is whatever you want it to be

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