Is Playing a Musical Instrument Good for Your Health?

An older man plays guitar
Playing a musical instrument may bring physical and mental health benefits, research suggests. (Image credit: Man playing guitar photo via Shutterstock)

"The Healthy Geezer" answers questions about health and aging in his weekly column.

Question: I'm 66 and I'm thinking of taking up a musical instrument. I hear that this will be good for my health. Is this true?

Playing an instrument seems to improve your health in a variety of ways. I play the saxophone almost every day, and can confirm that playing music definitely relieves stress. And stress can be bad for your mental and physical health.

There's a lot of evidence that playing music is good for you.

According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, playing an instrument as a child keeps the mind sharper as we age.

The study, done at the University of Kansas Medical Center, recruited 70 healthy adults ages 60 to 83, who were divided into groups based on their levels of musical experience. The musicians performed better on several cognitive tests than individuals who had never studied an instrument or learned how to read music. The brain functions measured by the tests tend to decline with age. [7 Ways the Mind and Body Change With Age]

"Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging," said lead researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy. "Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older."

There are benefits to starting an instrument in your later years, too.

"Music-making is linked to a number of health benefits for older adults," said Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. "Research shows that making music can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce stress, and lessen anxiety and depression. There is also increasing evidence that making music enhances the immunological response, which enables us to fight viruses," Hanser said.

Hanser said that anyone, regardless of age or ability, can make music and benefit from it.

"People are not only living longer these days, they want to remain healthy and active for as long as possible," said Antoinette Follett, editor-in-chief of "Making Music" magazine. "Plus, there is an increasing focus in the medical community on the need to keep the brain as healthy as the body. This focus is as much about making the empty nest and retirement years fun and worthwhile as it is about preventing debilitating dementias such as Alzheimer's disease. Music making has the potential to do both."

In one study, participants between ages 45 and 65 underwent tests to measure their auditory memory and ability to recognize speech among noise. Eighteen people in the group were active musicians, the rest were non-musicians. For the musicians, it was easier pick out a specific sound from competing noise.

Therapists have been using music to promote memory and a sense of self in the treatment of older adults with dementia.

"Music therapy has many faces," said Kimmo Lehtonen, a clinical music therapist in Finland. "Music has a close relationship with unconscious emotions, which are activated by musical movement. To me, music represents a microcosmos which has a close relationship to our inner feelings. These feelings are so strong, they're meaningful even if patients cannot remember who they are."

John Carpente, founder and executive director of the Rebecca Center for Music Therapy in New York, said he believes music empowers people to emerge from the isolation imposed by Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

"Undoubtedly, it's one of the most engaging and emotionally powerful stimuli," Carpente said. "Listening to music can have strong effects on people's moods, thinking, and even their physiology."

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All rights reserved © 2013 by Fred Cicetti

Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."