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:  http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0071630 

 

Strawberries and blueberries are some of summer’s delights. Now it seems they may even be helping to keep your brain sharp.

At least, that seems to be the case for women aged over 70. In a study that involved 16,000 American women, those who ate a portion of strawberries twice a week or a portion of blueberries once a week showed a slower decline in their mental abilities than those who didn’t.

As people get older, our brains tend gradually to become less sharp, our memory doesn’t work quite so well, and it can take a little longer to solve problems or learn new things. This is technically known as ‘cognitive decline’, and it is not the same as dementia (such as Alzheimer’s disease), a specific disorder that only affects a small proportion of people.

What the study found was that cognitive decline was delayed by up to two and a half years in the women who regularly ate berries.

This is probably due to some specific substances that the berries contain in small amounts: anthocyanidins, which are a type of flavonoid. There is quite a lot of dietary evidence showing that flavonoids – which are found in a number of fruit and vegetables – have health benefits, and in laboratory experiments they have been shown to have positive effects on brain cells.

If you like strawberries, blueberries and, indeed, other types of berries, you now have a good reason to indulge yourself. Just don’t undo the good work with too much sugar and cream!

*Link to the study: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ana.23594/abstract

 

Professor Brian Kirby, author of How to Live to 110: Your comprehensive guide to a healthy life

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