Lifetime study finds playing a musical instrument as an adult may boost your memory

1 July 2021, 13:18

Lifetime study finds playing a musical instrument as an adult may boost your memory
Lifetime study finds playing a musical instrument as an adult may boost your memory. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

One group of high schoolers participated in a 60-year-long study. The musicians among them, whether they started playing earlier or later in life, performed better in memory tasks.

Studies have shown musicians appear to have more “connected” brains, and children who play have “better memory and attention span”. Music-making is also a preferred, and proven, tool for alleviating symptoms of memory loss conditions like dementia.

Now a new study looking at the relationship between music-making and memory performance over a lifetime, has found people who started playing as adults did better at memory recall tasks in their middle to old age.

In 1957 in Wisconsin, more than 10,000 high school graduates filled out a survey about their school, family income, and future life and career goals. Their engagement with music was noted through graduate yearbook entries, and whether they were a member of any music ensembles.

The survey was the first of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study questionnaires, which were given to the same group of high school graduates in the years 1964, 1975, 1993, 2004 and 2011, to track their responses over time.

Recently, public health researchers at Stony Brook University requested access to the data for analysis and used it to look at whether making music affects memory in later life.

Read more: Study finds children who make music have better memory and attention span

Of the participants, 38 percent played music in high school, and 21 percent played music in adulthood.

Researchers honed in on the data given from 2004 and 2011, when participants were asked over the phone, or in person, to perform a series of memory tasks.

In one task, interviewers gave participants a list of words to remember, distracted them with other questions, then around 12 minutes later asked them to repeat the list.

During the interview, participants were also asked if they played a musical instrument either in school or later in life. 55 percent had never played as an adult and the rest had played at some point after high school, while only eight percent had played continuously throughout their life.

Read more: ‘Piano grandad’ lifts TikTok’s spirits by playing in wife’s memory

Musicians performed better in the memory recall tasks. Understandably, some memory decline was found between the ages of 65 and 72, but the average memory recall test scores were overall higher for those who had made music. The more they had played, the better their test scores.

In the study, researchers said they were surprised to see that, unlike some previous studies have suggested, it wasn’t only people who had played music from a young age that experienced positive lifelong effects on memory.

“The benefits of musical instrument engagement seem to build throughout the life course,” they add.

Researchers admit that there were some limitations to the study, so it is hard to prove an absolute link between music-making and memory aptitude.

Musicians may have performed better in the tests due to their lifestyle, as they tend to have more access to social groups through orchestras and choirs, or may lead a more active lifestyle. Both are factors that could influence memory aptitude.

However, the study offers a new perspective into the lifelong effects of music-making, giving us a new understanding of why strong memory recall isn’t limited to musicians who had the fortune to play their instrument from a young age.