September 11, 2023

Singing and Cognitive Reserve

Research shows singing is one of the most effective and enjoyable ways of maintaining our mental ability across the life-span.

It’s well known our Australian population is living longer than previous generations due to technology, medical science and greater awareness of habit and activities that make for good health. However, what concerns psychologists is the widening gap we’re seeing between physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing, as people get older.

Having our family members living well into their 70s, 80s and 90s is increasingly more common than before. However, we are continuing to see a significant portion of individuals in their 60s showing signs of confusion and memory loss, which could be a precursor to dementia. In other words, while many people are living longer and healthier, their mental functioning is not keeping pace and this is an area of great concern.

While people are moving better, feeling better and living healthier lives due to the advances in medical technology, such as knee and hip replacements, stents and a host of other modern treatments, relatively little research has been conducted with regards to how people think, problem-solve, reason and remember as we age. These are faculties we all take for granted. Yet we know around 20% of people will show clear signs of dementia after age 70 and a significant portion of these will fall victim of the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease after age 80. With our ageing population, that’s a significant number.

Mental Decline and prevention

Concerns about mental decline with age has become a topic of great interest.  It seems prevention is the key and it’s important not to wait until severe indicators of mental decline are evident. Unfortunately, most people wait until failure in their mental faculties is highly evident before seeking help. Here is a brief outline of what we know about the problem and the evidence to encourage anyone who wants to make the effort.

Cognitive Reserve

Recent research has focused on a topic called, “Cognitive Reserve”. It’s also referred to as “Brain Reserve”. Our brain is like any other body organ, in that, with age, it starts to deteriorate. As the brain ages, it develops protein growths. Nobody is immune, it happens to all of us. These growths are referred to as “plaques” and “tangles”, as that’s what they look like. The problem is that, eventually, as in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s disease, these growths clog and shut down a person’s neural pathways, causing severe confusion and memory loss, eventually leading to an inability to function. However, there is some good news for people willing to take action.

Around 20 years ago, researchers noticed there were people who were living well into their 80s and 90s with mental alertness and good functioning memories. In fact, there is a famous study of more than 300 Catholic nuns belonging to a religious order in the USA that was dedicated to teaching. The nuns agreed to have their lifestyle activities studied and after their death their brains could be examined medically. The study, which continues to this day, has provided a wealth of information. This group really had no “retirement”, as such. Members of the order would continue teaching, contributing to their community and helping out to the extent they were physically able. The consequence was most were mentally agile, intact and mentally alert until they died, mostly in their 80s and 90s. The amazing outcome that excited researchers was the nuns’ brains appeared to have the same physical deterioration, as people with advanced Alzheimer’s, yet these individuals showed few of the behavioural indications of mental deterioration. It seems their on-going activity contributed to the brain finding new pathways to maintain a relatively high level of functioning.

Why singing as an activity to maintain cognitive function?

While there are a variety of activities and lifestyle actions people can take to maintain mental wellbeing, I would like to focus on singing as an example. Singing has been shown to be a highly beneficial and important activity, to not only stimulate mental activity, but also to maintain functioning across the lifespan. A good start is to look at some of the research evidence. 

As we’re aware, music is a popular pastime for many people, so a lot of research has been done relating to the impact of music and singing in a range of situations. A few years ago, Swedish researcher, Teppo Sarkamo, and his colleagues studied the impact of singing and music listening on individuals with clear signs of mental decline. This study demonstrated that, compared to a control group, those who participated in singing and music showed improvement in their mood, orientation to their environment and their memory of events. In another study of more than a thousand people over the age of 64, published recently in the journal, Ageing and Mental Health, the researchers found people who engaged in organised musical activity, such as a choir, at least once every two weeks, also demonstrated better attention and memory of events. In addition, their overall mental functioning showed significant improvement. These are samples of the growing body of research confirming music and singing as a potential protective factor against mental decline.


It's never too late to improve on cognitive reserve

What we now know is our level of brain reserve is not set. It’s within our control and the activities we do can expand it, no matter what age you start. It’s never too late! The key lies in learning how to optimise our minds. While there are many ways to do this, singing, especially in choir activities offered by community choirs, such a “Sing Australia”, offer a uniquely beneficial activity that everyone can participate in. Singing in a public setting, as part of a choir, exercises your brain’s language centres (from reading the lyrics and then performing them), mood centres (which get involved in your interpretation of the song) as well as the brain’s memory and organisational centres when you remember a particular tune, song lyrics and the sequences required. Finally, choirs are social gatherings where people come together for a purpose, talk, interact and make new social connections.

The benefits offered by your local community choir is a not only an enjoyable activity for those who attend, but an important avenue to maintain mental functioning across the life-span.

Michael Tunnecliffe, is a Clinical Psychologist who has a Masters Degree in Philosophy and a keen interest in the aging brain. Michael is a Director of the Ashcliffe Psychology practice, based in West Perth. 

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