Music – the key to a healthy ageing?

‘What is good for your body, is good for your brain’

Generally, age paints a pretty bleak cognitive picture. Our memory, attention and reasoning all worsen with age. But we know, that having a healthy life (diet, exercise, not smoking etc.) can protect our brain from this age-related decline. I pose the question, what about music? Can playing a musical instrument keep your brain healthy as you get older?

Here’s why I ask that question.

In my previous blog post (The neuroscience of music) I discussed how playing a musical instrument changes the structure of our brain. As a child, if you learn a musical instrument it changes the brain’s structure and it changes how the brain functions. People who play a musical instrument from an early age show better memory, reasoning, ability to focus attention etc.

But what happens to a musician’s brain as they get older? Does playing a instrument early in life, protect your age from this typical cognitive decline in later life?

Yes, it does! Playing a musical instrument is like a full body workout for your brain! When we continue to play a musical instrument throughout life, we are giving our brains a continuous workout. This workout, leads to structural brain changes, as well as, cognitive changes. Older musicians show better recall, attention and reasoning when compared to their non-musically trained peers.

So, music is the key to healthy ageing!

In my next blog post, I will discuss the implications of this on the development of dementia.


The neuroscience of music


While I regularly discuss the potential music can offer to people living with dementia, I really haven’t given much background on the neuroscience of music. Exactly how can playing a musical instrument shape our brain?

Basic neuroscience

Our brain is split in two, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere is said to be responsible for logic and scientific endeavours, while the right hemisphere is said to be responsible for creativity. Essentially, we would use the left side of our brain for maths or science, while we would draw upon the right hemisphere for more creative tasks, such as art. Connecting the two hemispheres is a bridge of cells called the corpus callosum. Neurons (messages) fire between the two hemispheres through the corpus callosum. See the diagram below, the red structure is the corpus callosum.




Music & Neuroscience

Music requires the involvement of both hemispheres. Why? Well, if you think of a musician playing a violin. As they play, they require the precision and analytical skills of the left hemisphere as well as the creativity of the right hemisphere. So, both hemispheres have to work together for a musician to successful play their instrument. Over time, this causes the corpus callosum to grow bigger in a musician’s brain. A larger corpus callosum means the neurons in a musicians brain can take more diverse routes and fire more efficiently.

But it’s not just the corpus callosum other parts of the brain, which are responsible for hearing, seeing and moving, also change in size. Like regularly lifting weights to grow a muscle, regularly playing a musical instrument causes all these areas (auditory, visual, motor & corpus callosum) to grow.

Music & Cognition

So, this poses the question, how do all these changes in structure translate to how our brain functions? Well, musicians have been shown to have greater ‘higher order cognitive abilities’, so they demonstrate a greater ability to focus attention, to avoid distractions, to multitask etc.

So regularly playing a musical instrument not only structurally changes the shape of our brain, it changes how our brain functions!


In the next blog post, I will discuss how we can take this knowledge forward in relation to brain health. If playing a musical instrument in your early-midlife causes all these structural and cognitive changes, what happens your brain as you age? Can playing a musical instrument keep your brain healthy as you get older?

My Playlist for Life

The time has come, I have actually managed to compile my own playlist for life and it was no easy feat! I had drastically underestimated how difficult a task it would prove to be! What really suprised me about this playlist is that it is not entirely reflective of my personal taste in music, something (thankfully) which has evolved over the years. Most of these songs are not my favourite songs, but they are songs I associate with friends, family, a special moment a song has captured in time.

So, here it is, my (growing) Playlist for life:

The Cranberries – Linger

Rod Stewart – Maggie May

Republic of Loose – Comeback Girl

Jay Z, Kayne West – N****s in Paris

Arctic Monkeys – I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor

Shania Twain – That Don’t Impress Me Much

Busted – You Said No

Taylor Swift – 22

Charlie Simpson – Cemetary

U2 – Where the Streets Have No Name

Wheatus – Teenage Dirtbag

Ludacris – Move B***h


So now, over to you, time to create your playlist for life!

Brain Health – A narrative​ of hope


The stats are pretty striking. Right now there are about 46.8 million people living with dementia. By 2050, there will be an estimated 131.5 million people living with dementia. In just 30 years, that’s an increase of over 80 million people.

Although there are numerous clinical trials taking place in hope of finding a successful treatment. As of today, we have none. There is no cure.  Dementia in 2019 paints a dismal picture.

But I believe to address this epidemic, we need to change the narrative that surrounds dementia. We need to paint a picture of hope. We need to take control. Rather than focusing entirely on dementia prevention, we need to shift the narrative to that of brain health.

Brain Health.

We need to think about how our behaviour and lifestyle can affect our brain health. We need to become active participants in keeping our brain healthy. We need to look after our brain like we do our body. If our body is a temple, then our brain should be a high king.

Research has shown that approximately one-third of dementia is preventable through modifiable lifestyle choices, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, keeping alcohol consumption in moderation, not smoking etc. These lifestyle choices can support brain health. So in essence, what’s good for your body is good for your brain!

But there’s more.  We have also found that simple things, like chatting with a friend over a coffee, taking up a new hobby, speaking a second language, playing a musical instrument, all of these engage our brain. Like lifting weights to grow a muscle, each of these activities stimulates our brain, get neurons firing and keep our brain healthy!


Hope that through our own behaviour and lifestyle choices we can shape our brain health. We can shape our cognitive future. We can challenge the epidemic that is dementia. Together, we can change the narrative, by taking control of our brain health, we can together fight dementia.


Next week- I’ll look in a little more depth about how music can help keep our brain health as we get older! 



Playlist(s) for life?

A few weeks ago, I was chatting, rather enthusiastically, to a friend about how songs can trigger memories. By creating a flashback effect, music can reduce stress and anxiety for someone living with dementia, by bringing them back to a time of poignant serenity. I spend a lot of my time promoting the importance of building playlist of songs which can trigger this ‘flashback effect’ for someone with dementia.

Then I was hit with a question. “What would be on your playlist then?”

I don’t have a playlist. I’m not sure where I would start even. How could I pick just 10-12 songs? Could I even identify which songs I associate with particularly strong memories? I’m really not sure.

I considered the “reminiscence bump” (the period between the ages of 10 – 30 years when we dis-proportionally recall autobiographical memories) as a good starting point. But given I’m still living through this bump, maybe this wouldn’t work for me?

I have a few songs which could trigger memories formed in the last few years but are these sufficient? Could ‘Despacito’, the song of the summer when I submitted my PhD thesis or ‘A punk’, a song I listened to on repeat when I went through my Vampire Weekend phase create a flashback effect that had the potential to last my lifetime? I’m not convinced.

Given I am such a music head, I was not best pleased that I was struggling to create my own playlist. Then, while chatting to a colleague, I mentioned how I was struggling to build my ‘Playlist for Life’. And she posed the question, “Why must there be just one?” Her point being, music has the power to evoke many emotions. What we listen to is context dependent. For example, the playlist I listen to while running (angry rap music e.g. Black Skinhead) vs. the playlist I listen to while writing up a paper (mellow music e.g. No 1 Party  Anthem) vs. my favourite piece to play on the piano (i.e. Le Onde) are vastly different, so why not create multiple playlists for life? Playlists which are entirely dependent on the situation.

I really like that idea. Why restrict ourselves to just a collection of a few songs, when there are multiple songs which can trigger many different types of memories. If our taste in music is vast, then why not have playlists which represent this. So, now I’m off to build my playlists for life.


…the musical bump

“You’re just a small bump…you’re brought to life” (Ed Sheeran, Small Bump) taken wildly out of context but I’m running with it! Sorry Ed!

We encounter music in our daily lives. Often we make associations between particular songs to personal milestones, for example, the song played at your first dance at your wedding. Every time you hear that song, it brings you back to that moment in time.

One of the most fascinating concepts to me in the research area of memory, is the Reminiscence bump. Many years ago, scientists observed a peculiarity in how and what we remember. They noticed that we have a tendency dis-proportionally recall autobiographical memories between 10-30 years of age. There is a small bump across our lifetime of when we remember.


Well, like most things in psychology, there are many, many theories which attempt to explain why this is the case.  For example, it may be that memories from this time are best recalled as they are most fundamental to the formation of our own personal identity. These memories are integral to who we are. Another theory argues that we remember these memories best because they are ‘encoded’ better. Essentially, they are more deeply stored in our brain because we identify them as being important.

So great, we have a memory bump! So what? Why is this important?

Well, say someone has memory or cognitive (attention, reasoning, thinking) complaints. What happens to the memories during this bump? If these memories are stored deep in our brain, then what happens to these memories when someone develops dementia? Do we loose these memories?

Well no! Or at least, we can use music to help us find/remind us of these memories.

Music can transport anyone back to a point in their lives which holds deep meaning to them. Think about that time you were walking down the street, or washing the dishes, and all of a sudden you heard a song and it brought you right back to a moment in time. Yesterday evening, when N**ga’s in Paris (Please don’t judge, it was pre-ego Kanye days) came on my Spotify, I was no longer walking home in the rain on a dreary day in September in Dublin but in that moment, it was June 2012, I was 21, walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, beetroot red from sunburn, chatting away to my best friend while running from store to store searching for employment.

What is absolutely fascinating about my work, is seeing how music can trigger memories in everyone, irrespective of being healthy or living with dementia. The power of music is universal.

So now, all I need to do is convince Ed to write a song about the ‘Musical Bump’.