Hanna-Pladdy, a flutist, became interested in studying the impact of music education on the brain through her study of people with skilled movement disorders, such as those who had suffered a stroke. She realized that music could be a natural way to offer multi-sensory stimulation, an effective way to treat such disorders. She then became interested in learning more about the actual effect of musical training on the brain.
Why study music education as opposed to calculus or history? One reason is that evaluating the impact of music education is relatively easy because most people can specifically quantify the number of years they studied an instrument, Hanna-Pladdy said. It's also simpler to quantify the time spent playing music than hours devoted to other activities, such as crossword puzzles, reading or playing games. "Musical activity requires years of practice and is a challenging cognitive exercise," she said.
Cheryl Grady, a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre, in Toronto, said the research confirms what has been known for some time: Education can help protect against cognitive decline in older adults.
Grady pointed out that it remains unclear what is actually causing the beneficial effect. "We still don't know that much about what actually happens in the brain. My hunch is that in terms of these results, it has to do with the practicing, the continued stimulation of the brain," she said.
She has studied the impact of learning a second language on the brain, which Grady said is related to the need to inhibit one language system when speaking, reading or thinking in the other. The mental process required to play a musical instrument may work in the same way as juggling dual languages to strengthen the connections in your brain over time, she noted.
The bottom line boils down to something simple: "Use it or lose it, or lose it less q
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