For older adults, music training boosts cognitive function, well-being

Group music training can enhance cognitive function and personal well-being in older adults, according to a new University of Maine study led by Rebecca MacAulay, an assistant professor of psychology, and Philip Edelman, an assistant professor of music education. 

Music is associated with reduced stress and improved quality of life and mood, and music training requires coordination of sensory and motor sequences and the use of higher cognitive resources. But age-related differences in learning, vision and brain plasticity could limit the effectiveness of traditional teaching methods for older adult learners. 

The study asked whether it was feasible to teach older adults without prior music training how to read music and play the recorder using traditional teaching methods, and aimed to improve understanding of the relationship of music to cognitive functioning and psychological well-being.

Angelica Boeve and Amy Halpin, doctoral students in clinical psychology, and Nathan Sprangers, an undergraduate student in music education, also collaborated on this study, “Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain: Group Music Training as a Multimodal Cognitive Intervention for Older Adults,” published in the journal of the American Psychological Association.

The team developed the Maine Understanding Sensory Integration and Cognition (MUSIC) project, an interdisciplinary intervention in which trained music instructors led one-hour lessons for 12 weeks. The MUSIC project involved a community-based participatory research approach, partnering with the UMaine Center on Aging, Eastern Area of Living Agency, Bangor YMCA, and low-income independent living community housing residence coordinators in New England to recruit a diverse group of participants. 

The researchers found that it is more effective to adapt the teaching and learning strategies to align with the needs of an older population, and that participation in the program was associated with improvements in overall cognitive function and measures associated with frontal lobe function. Participants reported improvements in cognition, motor function, self-esteem, stress and emotional well-being, as well as “increased socialization” and “a supportive learning environment and a strong sense of accomplishment.” 

While most cognitive aging studies focus on college-educated, higher socioeconomic status populations, the participants in this study had a range of socioeconomic statuses, education levels, and medical or mental health conditions, making the results more generally applicable to populations at greater risk of cognitive decline. 

“Results indicated the MUSIC group training provided an intrinsically reinforcing activity that associated with enhanced cognitive function and relevant measures of personal well-being,” the researchers write. “Our findings and others support the importance of providing activities that promote socialization and learning for cognitive health.” 

Contact: Cleo Barker, 207.581.3729,