Doing This One Thing Will Help Your Brain for a Lifetime

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19 Sep Doing This One Thing Will Help Your Brain for a Lifetime

I know you hear a lot about maintaining a healthy body. Yes, you should lose that excess weight. Absolutely, you should eat healthier and stop gorging on junk food. 

But what about your brain health? Is there really anything you can do?

Yes there is.

You’re not a helpless victim of genetic predispositions. You can help your brain.

And there is one exercise that is sure to make an impact. This exercise is better than brain training games or learning a foreign language. In fact, it’s like strength training, cardio, balance and flexibility all rolled into one, but for the brain.

According to John Hopkins otolaryngologists, “If you want to keep your brain engaged throughout the aging process, listening to or playing [a musical instrument] is a great tool. It provides a total brain workout.”

Just listening to music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and pain. It can also improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness, and memory.

These outcomes are amazing, but playing an instrument is where the most powerful benefits come in. Learning how to play an instrument, even if it’s just for a short while, can help with brain function because it connects cognition and the human senses.

Mark Underwood knows this all too well. About ten years ago, he developed Pulmonary Hypertension. As his health spiraled downward, the condition consumed his life. At the time, he was the proud owner of the Underwood Group, a staffing agency, but he was forced to sell it and focus on his health. The loss of his business was hard hitting, but music was his saving grace. 

Mark started playing the trumpet when he was in the 6th grade. He says, “I liked it, but I got braces, and my mouth would bleed when I played. In 7thgrade, I switched to bass guitar, and in my senior year of college, I started lessons on the stand-up bass.

I wanted to be in a rock band as a teenager, and in the 60s and 70s that was the thing to do. Friends and I did several different bands in high school, and after college, I was in a popular Raleigh band called Magoo.

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Today, Mark is a well-known local musician who’s been playing and making music for more than 50 years. A guitar and stand-up bass player, he is currently the administrator of the Raleigh Jazz Orchestra.

Even though Mark has struggled with his physical health, his commitment to playing music has kept his mind strong.

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And here are just a few of the many benefits of being a musician.

Playing an instrument improves social skills and helps build friendships. Mark feels that a major benefit has been the longtime friendships he’s developed. Studies show that social connections are critical to brain health and that a loss of social connections can result in cognitive decline. Mark says, “Having to work with other musicians has helped me with team work and communication. You have to be good or get good at it to make music together.”

Playing an instrument increases brain capacity. It helps those with learning disabilities assimilate information. In fact, children with dyslexia and other literacy issues improved vastly when they learned to play a musical instrument. It helps those with injuries or cognitive decline improve their reaction times. Older drivers often react more slowly as they age, such as when driving a car, and playing music may help.

Playing an instrument increases brain gray matter, brain blood flow, and the callosum. It’s proven that the corpus callosum, a massive bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two sides of the brain, is larger in musicians.

Playing an instrument requires the right and left hemispheres, so logical thinking is fused with emotions, sound, and touch. Interestingly, music helps people to be more present, increasing empathy and enhancing states of consciousness.

Think playing an instrument encourages hearing loss? Think again. Playing an instrument helps protect hearing over a lifetime. Studies show that musicians, even as they age, have sharper and more discriminating hearing abilities compared to non-musicians. 

Playing an instrument improves long-term memory. Mark says that it keeps his brain sharp. “Music has forced me to really think and be willing to adjust.” Beyond this, music also helps with recall. People can use nostalgic music to help them remember a certain time period in their lives. 

Playing an instrument increases creativity. This happens most profoundly when someone learns new music. New music challenges the brain in a way that old, familiar music doesn’t. It might not feel pleasurable at first, but that unfamiliarity forces the brain to struggle to understand the new sound.  

Playing an instrument keeps the brain active. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, ongoing mental stimulation may strengthen connections between nerve cells in the brain. This has been another benefit for Mark. He’s played and continues to play numerous gigs. He also builds bass guitars and has sold a couple of them.

Playing an instrument can be something to start and/or continue in retirement. Mark says the key impact of music in his life occurred after he was forced into retirement.  Through perseverance, he was able to get back into helping the unemployed through an organization called Career Connections as a part-time volunteer. It operates to help job seekers refine their resumes, build their network, and develop their social media personal brand. Yet, music fills the bulk of Mark’s time. He says “Most of what I do now is music. I play for my church, at weddings, at Duke events, and in concerts with the orchestras and jazz bands. Also, I’ve travelled all around North Carolina playing with Elks clubs. I don’t think I’ll ever retire from playing music.” 

Ultimately, Mark says, “I enjoy doing it and listening to it. It’s challenging. It keeps me going and thinking a lot.”

So crank up the radio on your next ride home. If you’re a musician, keep it up. And if you aren’t, learn to play an instrument. Your brain will thank you.

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