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Being a musician or bilingual could be the key to avoiding dementia

Learning a new language or playing a musical instrument could be the key to avoiding dementia as it makes the brain more efficient

  • The brains of musicians and bilinguals process information differently to most
  • Individuals with these skills are more efficient and use less energy 
  • Scientists believe this could delay the onset of dementia in later life  

Playing a musical instrument or learning another language could protect against dementia, according to research.

Scientists found that the process of learning as an adult trains the brain to become more efficient.  

Brain scans showed that musicians and bilinguals are able to activate different regions of the brain, which uses less energy. 

These areas of the brain make use of different networks which means less brain activity is required to complete certain functions.

As a result of the unique and energy efficient way these brains operate, they are less likely to develop dementia.

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Playing a musical instrument or learning another language could protect against dementia, according to research.  By saving energy, researchers claim bilinguals and musicians keep their minds fresher, which could slow the onset of dementia (stock image)

The scans revealed that the brains of these people used fewer resources to memory test.    

Senior scientist Dr Claude Alain, of Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, said: ‘These findings show that musicians and bilinguals require less effort to perform the same task, which could also protect them against cognitive decline and delay the onset of dementia.

‘Our results also demonstrated that a person’s experiences, whether it’s learning how to play a musical instrument or another language, can shape how the brain functions and which networks are used.’

This study builds on previous research which has found that musicians and polyglots are better at retaining information. 

For example, this subset of the population are better at remembering a phone number, a list of instructions or doing mental arithmetic.

A reason why, however, was never found. 

This mystery has been solved by scientists at Baycrest. 

As the first study of its kind to use brain scans, it aimed to uncover how these activities boost different parts of the brain among individuals.   

The study involved 41 young adults aged 19 to 35 who fit into three categories: English-speaking non-musicians, musicians who only spoke English and bilinguals who didn’t play a musical instrument.  

Brain scans showed musicians and bilinguals activated different brain networks and showed less brain activity than mono-linguists and non-musicians. The scans revealed that the brains of these people used fewer resources to memory test (stock image)

Brain imagery captured the thought process for each participant as they were asked to identify whether the sound they heard was the same type as the previous one.

Brain scans were done as each participant was asked to identify whether the sound they heard was the same type as the previous one.

They were played a variety of sounds from musical instruments, the environment and humans.

They were then also asked to identify if what they heard was coming from the same direction as the previous noise.

Musicians remembered the type of sound faster than individuals in the other groups, while bilinguals and musicians performed better on the location task.

Bilinguals performed at the same level as individuals who spoke only one language and didn’t play a musical instrument when it came to the tasks, but they still showed less brain activity when completing the task.

Dr Alain, added: ‘People who speak two languages may take longer to process sounds since the information is run through two language libraries rather than just one

‘During this task, the brains of bilinguals showed greater signs of activation in areas that are known for speech comprehension, supporting this theory.’

Further research is planned to explore the impact of art and musical training among adults to see if this leads to changes in brain function.

The study was published in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 


Aerobic exercise such as walking and running may halt dementia by preventing the brain from shrinking, research suggested in November 2017.

Being active several times a week maintains the size of the region of the brain associated with memory, a study found.

Known as the hippocampus, this region is often one of the first to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s patients.

Lead author Joseph Firth from the Western Sydney University, said: ‘When you exercise you produce a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may help to prevent age-related decline by reducing the deterioration of the brain.

‘In other words, exercise can be seen as a maintenance programme for the brain.’

The scientists, from the universities of Western Sydney and Manchester, analysed 14 studies with a total of 737 participants.

The participants were aged between 24 and 76, with an average age of 66.

They were made up of healthy individuals, Alzheimer’s patients and people with mental health problems, such as depression and schizophrenia.

Scans of the participants’ brains were investigated before and after completing exercise, such as walking or treadmill running.

The exercise programmes lasted between three months and two years, with participants completing two to five sessions a week.  

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