Lifetime musical experience and healthy ageing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Philosophy Psychology & Language


From nursery rhymes to playing in a band or joining a choir in retirement, our lives are punctuated by music. These are life-enhancing experiences for many of us, but could making or listening to music also help us tackle challenges related to ageing?
As a global population, we are aging rapidly. This trend brings many challenges, as people often suffer from poorer health and declining memory and thinking skills in older age. Listening to music and music making are unique mentally demanding tasks which involve the combination of different mental processes including attention, emotion, memory, and in the case of playing a musical instrument, physical coordination and skill. Findings from previous studies have documented the benefits of playing a musical instrument in terms of better cognitive or language development in children and improved performance on tests of cognitive function in adults. Neuroimaging studies of brain structure indicate that musical training is associated with certain brain differences. In addition, other studies have documented the psychological benefits of various forms of musical experience including playing an instrument, singing and listening to music. Less is known regarding the potential association between musical experience and outcomes in older age. In particular, it is unclear whether musical experience is related to changes in cognitive function, brain structure or psychological wellbeing in older age. The aim of the proposed project is to examine these potential associations.
I will examine associations between musical experience and healthy ageing using data from the Lothian Birth Cohort study 1936 (LBC1936). Every three years, since the age of 70, LBC1936 participants have completed an extremely detailed battery of thinking and memory tests. Participants have had multiple brain MRI scans and provided extensive health, demographic, psychological and lifestyle data. Importantly, a measure of cognitive ability in childhood is also available for these participants. At the most recent wave of the study, at age 82, participants completed a lifetime musical experience questionnaire. The questionnaire provides a detailed retrospective account of lifetime musical instrument training and practice. It also assesses other aspects of lifetime musical experience including singing and music listening.
Using these data, I will address the following unresolved questions: 1) what are the demographic, health, and childhood cognitive characteristics of people with high levels of lifetime musical experience? This work will help establish whether the association between musical experience and healthy ageing might be causal, or simply a by-product of another factor which influences both musical experience and ageing outcomes (e.g. socioeconomic status). 2) Is experience playing a musical instrument related to lifetime cognitive change? Cognitive function in childhood is one of the main predictors of cognitive function in older age, in this study I will test if people with more experience playing a musical instrument tend to have higher cognitive abilities at age 70 than would be expected given their cognitive ability at age 11. 3) Is experience playing a musical instrument related to level or change in cognitive ability or brain structure in older age? 4) Is experience playing a musical instrument, singing or music listening related to level or change in psychological wellbeing in older age? In testing these questions, I will statistically control for the factors, identified in the first study, which might account for associations between musical experience and cognitive, brain or psychological health in older age.
My results could lay the groundwork for establishing whether musical experience - and experience playing a musical instrument in particular - is beneficial for older people.

Planned Impact

Sustaining the cognitive health and psychological wellbeing of the ageing global population represents a significant public health challenge. Research into the potential benefits of musical experience for cognitive health and wellbeing in older age will therefore be of interest to a variety of stakeholder communities including members of the general public, older people and older people's groups, health and social care practitioners, policy makers and music practitioners and educators.

1) The general public and older people
Music, in one form or another, brings pleasure, inspiration and connection to many people's lives, while the challenge of maintaining cognitive health and psychological wellbeing in older age is a source of public concern. Consequently, I expect that research into the potential benefits of musical experience for healthy ageing will be of interest to the general public and older people in particular. I hope that my research will help start conversations about healthy ageing, and lay the groundwork for future studies into the potential later life benefits of musical experience. In the longer term, this area of research has the potential to help those concerned about healthy aging to make informed lifestyle choices. I will share my findings with members of the public through outreach events to be held at science festivals and online through Age UK and dedicated LBC1936 and Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) websites. In addition, I will work with the University of Edinburgh press office to publicise key findings.

2) Older people's groups, health/social care practitioners and policy makers
My research could benefit older people's groups by contributing to the advice and support they provide to older people interested in lifestyle factors related to healthy ageing. I hope my research will provide a starting point for conversations about the development of music-based interventions and public health policy designed to promote healthy ageing. I will work with Age UK, which represents the country's largest charity for older people to disseminate my findings. During the course of the project, I will engage with policy makers by attending Cross-party Groups on music and ageing at the Scottish Parliament.

3) Music practitioners and educators
I expect that music practitioners and educators will particularly appreciate further insight regarding the potential cognitive and psychological benefits of playing a musical instrument. My findings could help open opportunities for these groups to apply for additional funding and support in bringing musical experience to a wider audience. In addition, information regarding the socio-demographic and health characteristics of individuals with lower levels of musical experience could inform the development of outreach programs aimed at widening participation in musical activities, particularly in older populations. Sharing my findings with music practitioners and educators will be facilitated by my co-investigator Dr Overy who is based at the Reid School of Music and is the director of the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development. In addition, Dr Overy has strong collaborative links with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Scotland. I intend to gain feedback from music practitioners and educators at an early stage of the project and to share my findings with these groups through a program of workshops and presentations. Detailed information on all planned knowledge exchange activities can be found in the "Pathways to Impact" document.


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