Thought about taking up a musical instrument? Need another reason to encourage your children to play music? It could be good for the brain in the long term, helping to reduce mental decline. And with people living to older ages, it’s not surprising there’s an avid interest in anything that may slow down mental decline.

Mental decline is different from dementia. It is something that affects all of us; there’s evidence that a gradual decline in memory and thinking abilities starts in early middle-life and accelerates as we grow older. Dementia, on the other hand, is due to specific disorders that affect only a proportion of people.

It is understandable that, when people first notice some forgetfulness, they may worry that dementia is on its way – especially if others in their family have suffered from the condition. But dementia is much more than simply a loss of memory, and the forgetfulness may not even be part of mental decline! Many children and teenagers frequently forget seemingly silly things of everyday life.

Mental decline, though, can become annoying and troublesome, and there have been plenty of suggestions for keeping it at bay. There are the advocates of crossword puzzles and other brainteasers such as Sudoku. Others feel card games, chess and conversation are the secret of keeping an active mind. There’s increasing evidence that regular exercise retards mental decline; and there’s also evidence that speaking two or more languages helps.

Music may also hold a key. Astonishingly, many musicians can remember  long pieces of music note for note and retain complex motor skills – skills often far beyond what the rest of us could ever do – until well into their advanced old age, sometimes even beyond a hundred years old.

Researchers in Toronto have now compared mental performance in 18 professional musicians and 24 non-musicians in late middle life*. The non-musicians were carefully selected to match the musicians – for example in education, general health and language skills – so that they differed only in musical skills. Most of the musicians played more than one instrument.

As might be expected, the musicians did better in tests of auditory skills than the non-musicians. They also did better in many of the other tests, including a composite measure of thinking ability. The results suggest that sustained music training or involvement is associated with improved aspects of mental functioning in older adults. People who have played musical instruments for many years seem to have less mental decline than their non-musical counterparts.

This was a small study with relatively few participants; but the researchers make the point that finding these differences in a small group is promising.

And even if you or your children don’t end up with a better-functioning brain in later life, playing music is a lot of fun.

*Link to study: 


Ask elderly people what they fear most and the commonest answer is losing their mind. Many people believe that this is inevitable, particularly the older you get.

Good news, though. That isn’t true, as a recent study* has shown.

Danish researchers compared the data for two groups of older people. One group, all people born in 1915, were studied when they were 95 years old. The second group – of people born in 1905 – had been studied previously when they were 93 years old. The findings were fascinating.

The two groups were similar in physical tests such as hand-grip, standing and walking speed, although the 1915 group were better in tests related to the activities of daily living.

The researchers then used standard methods to assess ‘cognition’ – the brain-based skills everyone uses to deal with everything from the simplest to the most complex processes. The group born in 1915 scored significantly better – even though they were older at the time of assessment. These 95-year-olds had clearer minds than the 93-year-olds born ten years earlier.

The researchers concluded that that more people are living to older ages with better overall functioning.

Incidentally, they also found that those born in 1915 had a 32% greater chance of living longer than those who were born in 1905.


*Link to the study abstract:


Dementia is a frightening condition. It’s not surprising that many elderly people express concern about it – particularly if they find themselves becoming forgetful. But how worried should they be?

The first thing to keep in mind is that most people – of all ages – are forgetful at times. Think how often parents have to remind their children to take all the kit they need to school. And memory declines as we get older, simply as part of the ageing process. Memory loss certainly isn’t the same as dementia, although it is one of the symptoms.

Indeed, there’s a lot of confusion about what dementia actually is. For a start it’s not due to a single disease as many people think. Alzheimer’s disease is the best known, but it is only one of the causes. Unfortunately, we still don’t have an easy way to diagnose dementia as a whole, let alone the different variants.

What sets dementia apart from normal ageing is the loss to a greater or lesser extent of a range of ‘cognitive skills’, such as reasoning ability and use of words. Memory loss is often the symptom that is spotted first, partly because it interferes with social functioning and partly because this is the symptom most easily noticed by the sufferers themselves, as well as their friends and family.

So how can you tell whether memory loss is simply part of a decline with age or a sign that someone is already marked out for dementia?

Unfortunately, it seems we can’t. One recent study suggested that memory generally does not decline much before the age of 60. Memory loss before this age might therefore have been a useful marker for dementia. However, this has been questioned by the results of an extensive long-term UK study* that showed a general decline in memory and other cognitive skills even at the age of 45.

In the United States, a long-term study** carried out by phone survey – the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System – has shown the scale of the issue. The results suggest that 1 in 8 people aged over 60 living at home have experienced confusion or memory loss in the previous 12 months to the extent that one third of them sought help from friends and relatives. Few, though, had sought professional advice.

These results highlight the need to find ways to differentiate those with memory loss who go on to develop dementia from those others where it is simply an inevitable result of ageing. This is important for those individuals, and also for society more widely in planning potentially expensive treatment and social needs.

We now have a significant population of people over 65, with their number increasing rapidly. All forms of dementia increase with age, especially in those over the age of 80 years. Differentiating people with normal ageing from those who are developing dementia is going to become increasingly important.

Until reliable diagnosis and effective treatments are available, the best bet is to take steps known to avoid dementia or delay its onset such as regular physical activity (especially during middle life), maintaining a lively mind, continuing manual and mental skills into older life, and keeping an active social life.


*Link to study:

**Link to study:


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