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Music and the Aging Brain

By: , Posted on: October 6, 2020

As the number of people affected by dementia continues to rise, with no effective treatment to prevent or cure the disease, eyes turn to non-pharmacological approaches for dementia prevention and care. Among them, the use of music received considerable attention over the past decades, both for cognition maintenance and for increasing quality of life of people living with dementia. But what exactly do we know scientifically of the benefits of music on our brain? What are the underlying mechanisms explaining how music affects, protects or repairs the brain?

These questions and more are addressed throughout the 16 chapters of Music and the ageing brain.The book benefits from the contribution of 30 internationally renown authors and presents empirical data and theoretical discussions that will guide future research and influence practices, both at the individual and societal levels – food for thoughts for researchers, students, clinicians, music teachers, music therapists, or anyone curious to know more about the mysterious interactions between music and the brain.

You can read Chapter 1 – The musical brain now, for a limited time on ScienceDirect.

An important thing to note is that music is a meaningful stimulus for the vast majority of the population worldwide – only about 1.5% of people are unable to process or appreciate music (a neurological condition known as amusia). This inclination for music is also trans-generation: from young kids to centenarians, music has the power of reaching every body and mind. Decades of research in psychology and neuroscience have shown that music has the potential to regulate emotions, support body movements, facilitate social communication, and stimulate cognition across generations.

Music activities, from listening to playing to dancing, involve many cognitive processes and brain areas, which work in concert to create this unique, meaningful experience of perceiving and appreciating music. While some aspects of music perception (e.g., pitch, time/rhythm, or emotions conveyed by music) may be slightly impaired with age, for example in the case of hearing loss, the overall capability of older adults to understand, perform, enjoy, or react to music is relatively well maintained. This resilience of the musical brain is also observed, to a certain extent, in brain pathologies, such as neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease) or stroke. Even if certain type of stroke may induce amusia, most brain lesions do not impact music perception. In fact, interesting cases of preservation of music abilities have been observed in individuals with dementia, who continued to play and compose music despite the disease.

The aging brain

The book begins with an overview of the brain regions and networks activated by the musical brain. It includes diagrams (brain maps) of the multiple brain regions involved. Based on neuroscientific evidence, the neuroarchitecture of brain organization for music is described; it traces complex interconnected processes and structures, from simple visceral reaction to sound and basic feature detection at subcortical levels to memory and pattern formation at cortical levels. Throughout, this introductory chapter emphasizes the sensory, cognitive, emotional and social aspects of musical responding, and music’s relations with language.

Following chapters are concerned with normal aging processes and discuss the effects on music listening and appreciation of normal sensory and cognitive declines, including age-related hearing loss. Overall, while age-related declines are evident in tasks involving pitch and time processing and emotion detection and memory, there is encouraging evidence that some of these declines may be offset by top-down knowledge based on experience.
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Other than normal decline, aging may be accompanied by serious disorders of musical perception and memory. These are the disorders resulting from age-related neuropathology–dementia and stroke. Neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s disease selectively target the hierarchically organized, distributed networks of the musical brain. Stroke also can cause multiple impairments in perception, cognition and motor skills.

How can music help the aging brain?

Music approaches are a highly valuable mean for interventions and therapy in the elderly. It is not, however, to be considered as a magical ointment to apply blindly and indiscriminately to every situation. As researchers progressively provide a better understanding of the active ingredients of the various beneficial effects of music, clinicians and therapists can design interventions that can more and more specifically target certain issues, and be personalized, i.e., based on patients’ brain or cognitive profiles/needs and on their individual preferences. From cognitive to emotional or motor effects, the spectrum of applications is large. In healthy older adults, music can be used to stimulate brain plasticity, develop new cognitive networks and boost brain reserve – a sort of resilience against age-related brain lesions. Music practice (i.e., active music making) can help reduce cognitive slow down and increase mental flexibility and alertness. Music can also be an opportunity to involve in physical activity through dance, allowing people to benefit from the very well-known positive effects of physical activity on aging and brain health. Music is also a very social activity and can be the opportunity to engage with others (for example through a community choir), thus fighting social isolation, associated with worse psychological and cognitive outcomes.

On the other hand, music can be used to improve quality of life in persons suffering from dementia: the calming, soothing effect of music can help decrease patients’ anxiety or agitation; on the opposite, the arousing effect of music can help fight apathy. Here, simply listening to music can already have positive effects on people. Music also has a strong evocative power and can help retrieve memories from our youth, which can help reinforce feeling of self in demented persons. It can also represent a valuable communication tool when language or communication abilities are disturbed. In other cases, the temporal aspect of music, i.e., rhythm, can be used to improve motor functions, such as supporting gait in Parkinson patients, rehabilitating limb dysfunction after stroke or facilitating speech and language production in aphasic patients.

About the book

• Summarizes brain structures supporting music perception and cognition
• Examines and explains music as neuroprotective in normal aging
• Addresses the association of hearing loss to dementia
• Promotes a neurological approach for research in music as therapy
• Proposes questions for future research in music and aging

You can read Chapter 1 – The musical brain now, for a limited time on ScienceDirect.

The book is available now on ScienceDirect. Want your own copy? Enter code STC320 when ordering on the Elsevier store to save up to 30%

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