Pure Genius: Music, Sports, Alzheimer’s and Growth

How Our Brains Grow With Physical and Emotional Stimulation

Perhaps you have a parent or grandparent facing the rough journey known as Alzheimer’s.
Well, music has been known to affect those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, but why it has an effect on these patients has not always been clear – until now.

Similarly, learning a new sport has a similar effect on the brain, but for different reasons. That is now also becoming clearer as to why it occurs. Both music and physical activity remain as viable and attractive choices for most people to enjoy, even later in life. The health benefits now seem even more reason to make these choices—perhaps the earlier, the better.

Listed below are some of the simple reasons why music helps slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and we also list below that, the reasons why learning a new sport helps. The reasons are different, and connected by a common thread—they both trigger brain activity of a certain sort.

Should you run out and learn to wakeboard, play tennis, or sing opera? Perhaps not, but the research is pretty clear: you do not have to practice music well, or perform like a champ at a new sport to reap all of the benefits in your brain.

Let’s start with reasons why music helps to delay (prevent may be a bit strong) Alzheimer’s Disease in patients, even if they have never played music until later in life.

Music Helps Dementia Patients Recall Memories and Emotions

Ever stirred by Queen’s, Bohemian Rhapsody, your favorite “guilty pleasure”, or Mozart’s 5th Symphony? Music can do that to us.

A recent study shows that dementia and Alzheimer’s patients can recall memories and emotions, and have enhanced mental performance after singing classic hits and show tunes from movies and musicals – a breakthrough in understanding how music affects those with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Researchers determined the effect music has on dementia patients, by leading half of the participants through selected songs while the other half listened to the music being played. After the musical treatment, all participants took cognitive ability and life satisfaction tests. which showed how participants scored significantly better when being lead through songs, rather than only listening.

So sing away…in the shower, in the car, or in the kitchen!

Here are five reasons why researchers believe that music boosts brain activity:

Music evokes emotions that bring about memories.

Music can evoke emotion in even the most advanced of Alzheimer’s patients. Neurologist Oliver Sacks says that, “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.” By pairing music with every day activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them to the recall the memory of that activity, improving cognitive ability over time.

All of this occurs even after the diagnosis of the disease!

Musical aptitude and appreciation remain as two of the last remaining abilities in dementia patients that can improve.

Linda Maguire, lead author on the study wrote, “Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s.” Because these two abilities remain long after other abilities have passed, music is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and reach the person.

In short, you really can teach an old dog, new tricks, even if they do not perform the tricks at a high level of skill.

Music can bring emotional and physical closeness with others.

In the later stages of dementia, patients often lose the ability to share emotions with caregivers. Through music, as long as they are ambulatory, they can often dance. Dancing can lead to hugs, kisses and touching which brings security and memories.

The nuns in grade school were right. Dancing does lead to morally decadent activities!

Singing is engaging and social.

The singing sessions in the study engaged more than just the brain and the area related to singing. As singing activated the left side of the brain, listening to music sparked activity in the right and watching the class activated visual areas of the brain. With so much of the brain being stimulated, the patients were exercising more mind power than usual.

Music can shift mood, manage stress and stimulate positive interactions.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has an entire web page dedicated to music therapy in Alzheimer’s patients. They say that, “When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function and coordinate motor movements.” This is because music requires little to no mental processing, so singing music does not require the cognitive function that is not present in most dementia patients.

Finally, you can sing the words any way you like, and get away with it!

If Music if Good, Could Sports Be Even Better?

Learning in midlife to juggle, swim, ride a bicycle or, snowboard could change and strengthen the brain in ways that practicing other familiar pursuits such as crossword puzzles or marathon training will not, according to an accumulating body of research about the unique impacts of motor learning on the brain.

When most of us consider learning and intelligence, we think of activities such as adding numbers, remembering names, writing poetry, or learning a new language. Such complex thinking generally is classified as “higher-order” cognition and results in activity within certain portions of the brain and promotes plasticity, or physical changes, in those areas. There is strong evidence that learning a second language as an adult, for instance, results in increased white matter in the parts of the brain known to be involved in language processing.

Regular exercise likewise changes the brain, with studies showing that running and other types of physical activities increase the number of new brain cells created in parts of the brain that are integral to memory and thinking. Who’d a thunk you could get smarter by becoming a dumb jock?

“We have a tendency to admire motor skills,” said Dr. John Krakauer, a professor of neurology and director of the Center for the Study of Motor Learning and Brain Repair at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. We like watching athletes in action, he said. But most of us make little effort to hone our motor skills in adulthood, and very few of us try to expand them by, for instance, learning a new sport.

In doing so, we could be short-changing our brains.

Past neurological studies in people have shown that learning a new physical skill in adulthood, such as juggling, leads to increases in the volume of gray matter in parts of the brain related to movement control. Tough first choice, but other new physical pursuits work just as well.

Even more compelling, a 2014 study with mice found that when the mice were introduced to a complicated type of running wheel, in which the rungs were irregularly spaced so that the animals had to learn a new, stutter-step type of running, their brains changed significantly. Learning to use these new wheels led to increased myelination of neurons in the animals’ motor cortexes. Myelination is the process by which parts of a brain cell are insulated, so that the messages between neurons can proceed more quickly and smoothly. In short, we get smarter by doing these types of activities.

Scientists once believed that myelination in the brain occurs almost exclusively during infancy and childhood and then slows or halts altogether. Instead, it turns out, learning the new skill had changed the inner workings of the adult animals’ motor cortexes. Oddly enough, pursuing an already established physical skill did almost nothing to increase brain function.

Learning a new sport or skill when you are old enough to be a parent to your instructor is psychologically uplifting, as well as beneficial for the body and brain. It reminds you that your body can still respond, that it can still yearn for movement and speed—all while your brain improves its function! That seems like a great combination indeed!

In the end, it’s all about growth and learning—healthy at any age, but especially beneficial as a fun and achievable ‘insurance policy’ against growing old.

So go ahead. Sing in the shower, or better yet, sing in the car on the way to a Tae-Kwon Do class, or while you learn to swim as an adult.

Your brain will be glad you did, and so will your heart!

All the best!

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