How ‘Jingle Bells’ Can Save Your Brain

Making music and singing tunes all year long, actually, will help you mentally, neurologically, cognitively

If your family doesn’t have a tradition of singing holiday songs together, it might be time to consider it. Singing together around a piano or guitar and teaching your kids how to keep rhythm with simple drums, bells, and tambourines is the equivalent of giving your brain a good workout — and can bode well for your neurological health later in life.

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Scientists have found through brain imaging studies that music is the brain’s equivalent of marathon training. While many activities engage only specific portions of the brain, playing an instrument engages the processing centers needed for rhythm, motor skills, and emotive response. People who play instruments engage virtually every area of the brain. Practicing music over long periods of time leads to better cognitive agility and an increased size of the corpus callosum, the section of your brain that serves as the bridge between the left and right sides — and this connection makes musicians good problem solvers, socially and professionally.

Musicians are often better at strategizing, planning, and paying attention to detail.

Musicians, in fact, have repeatedly shown they have higher levels of executive function, which means that they are often better at strategizing, planning, and paying attention to detail. Speaking multiple languages has been shown to stave off dementia for as many as five years — and scientists believe playing an instrument could have a similar effect.

“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 Dr. Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Maryland, in a media release on her recent research into musicianship and Alzheimer’s. “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.”

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Starting before the age of nine and 10 years and continuing on with music throughout our lives appears to yield the best benefits for cognitive health after age 65, Hanna-Pladdy told LifeZette.

High-level musicians have an increased ability to access their memories, retain cognitive flexibility, and adapt to new information, according to Dr. Hanna-Pladdy. They also have higher levels of cognitive reserve, the process that counteracts the deterioration of age. People who play music regularly have an easier time accessing their memories because the increased connectivity between parts of their brain tags memories with multiple markers, such as an auditory, emotional, and contextual tag.

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Periodic singing and playing instruments during the holidays probably won’t stave off dementia in and of itself, but it could awaken a long-term interest in music that could save your aging brain. Even those people who begin at the same cognitive level have shown increased processing abilities after some exposure to music learning.

So stop worrying about whether you’ve got rhythm or a great singing voice. Getting into music no matter how talented you are could help your brain as you get older. It’s worth a little embarrassment in the short term.

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