We know exercise helps strengthen our minds and our bodies. We know that taking on new challenges keeps the brain sharp through middle age and beyond. But now new research — and a new public television documentary — make a strong case that engagement with music, dance and other arts may be just as powerful for preserving mental health and acuity throughout our lives.
A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience shows that people who learned to play a musical instrument as children appear to experience less decline in brain function as they age. In tests of memory and cognitive ability, older adults who had learned to play an instrument in their youth, and who played the instrument for at least 10 years, outperformed adults without musical training.
"Behaviors can change your brain," says the study’s lead author, Emory University assistant professor of neurology, radiology and imaging sciences Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, herself a flutist. "Musical activity requires years of practice and is a challenging cognitive exercise." Remaining musically active throughout adulthood, or returning in middle age to an instrument learned in childhood, also appeared to bring benefits to the brain, although it was unclear from the research whether taking up an instrument for the first time in adulthood provided similar advantages. (Other studies have found beneficial effects from learning a second language or taking on similarly challenging, long-term tasks requiring practice.)
(MORE: How Plastic Is Your Brain?)
In Arts & the Mind, a two-part special produced by Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) and airing nationwide this fall (check this PBS viewing guide for airdates in your area), other scientists extol the power of the arts to boost mental acuity throughout life. The documentaries, funded by MetLife Foundation and hosted by Lisa Kudrow, focus on programs that actively engage both children and older adults in creating music, dance, painting, drama, poetry and song. The shows make especially striking claims for the ability of dance to ward off dementia in older people. “The evidence says that participation in dance programs reduces the rate of development of dementia by maybe 75 percent,” says neuroscientist Peter Davies of New York’s Albert Einstein Medical Center. “There is no drug around or even on the horizon that can reduce the rate of development of Alzheimer’s disease by 75 percent.”
Both the program and the new research address the concept of “use it or lose it,” the principle that we need to keep our brains sharp and engaged — through art, music, work, mental challenges or other endeavors — or risk losing a greater degree of mental agility as we age. “We’ve all heard this phrase related to physical exercise, but I think one of the key revelations is how important the arts can be in keeping your mind agile,” says Arts & the Mind executive producer Gerry Richman of TPT. (The show was written and directed by Leo Eaton.) “Arts that combine physical as well as mental acuity are the best in terms of keeping the aging mind going,” Richman says, which is why dance appears to have such potent benefits.
“One of the aspects of the lifelong 'use it or lose it' principle is that the task needs to be challenging,” neuroscientist Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health says on the program. "There seems to be no age limit in which the principle stops taking effect. The brain will continue to adapt and change based on those efforts."
Caregivers for aging parents, especially those already experiencing dementia, can also reap benefits by keeping loved ones engaged in the arts.
The “Meet Me at MoMA” program, featured on Arts & the Mind, welcomes people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, and their family members or caregivers, into New York City’s Museum of Modern Art to experience some of its masterpieces. Standing or seated before a work of art, the patients can become powerfully engaged. "It’s not a cure," Richman says, "but it does provide moments of clarity and connection with husbands, wives and families."
Richman maintains that Americans underestimate the role art can and should play in our lives, and expresses hope that the program, rooted in current neurological research, can help change minds. “Too often in our country today art is seen as something nice to have. It’s fun to go to the movies or the theater. But we think of it as one of the additives of life, as opposed to a central part of life. The point the show makes is that art is really central to human experience, creating connection with people throughout our lives and keeping our brains sharp.
“Art is central to our lives and should not be an outlier,” he adds. “It will help us get older. It’s not going to stop us from getting Alzheimer’s or cancer, but what it can do is keep us stronger mentally for as long as we’re going.”