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Aging Well: Playing music is a major key to brain health

This biweekly column is sponsored by The Mather in Tysons, Virginia, a forward-thinking Life Plan Community for those 62 and better.

If you’re going to enjoy a lifelong hobby, you can’t beat the benefits of playing a musical instrument. In addition to bringing joy to yourself and any listeners you might have, you’re doing great things for your brain.

“I think playing music is a unique art form. It’s creative, offering an opportunity to create as you go, and at the same time, it’s analytical and almost mathematical,” says Peter Cahn, who plays guitar. “And as far as I’m concerned, it’s a group activity.” Peter enjoys playing music with others, trying out different songs and arrangements. He has played regularly with the same group for 14 years, and is looking forward to playing with other residents of The Mather, a Life Plan Community for those 62 and better, when it opens in Tysons, Virginia, in 2024.

“I want to meet other musicians when we move into The Mather, explore different genres, and see what we can do,” he says.

Noteworthy Brain Benefits

One thing the musicians at The Mather can do is enjoy multiple benefits for their brains. That’s because playing an instrument simultaneously works different sensory systems in the brain, along with your motor skills. This coordination of efforts provides a workout for your brain — the kind of workout that strengthens connections within the brain and keeps you mentally sharp. In turn, this can improve your memory and cognition — one study showed that musicians perform better on cognitive tests than those who don’t play an instrument.

Then there is the benefit of learning; even accomplished musicians continually learn new songs and new arrangements. “As you progress in music, your horizons broaden; the amount to be learned seems limitless, especially in jazz,” says Marie Himel, another future resident of The Mather. Marie plays flute and tenor saxophone. “I’ve yet to meet a jazz musician who is satisfied with where they are. The art can be taken in so many directions.”

In fact, musical training has been proven to increase gray matter volume in specific brain regions and strengthen the connections between them. Other research has shown that such training can improve long-term memory, verbal memory, and spatial reasoning. And multiple studies have shown that playing music helps improve concentration — not just when playing, but in all areas of daily life.

In the Mood

It should come as no surprise that playing music can reduce stress — but it can also lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and reduce anxiety and depression. And — whether you are playing music or simply listening to it — it can boost your mood.

“It stimulates the emotions. There’s a sweet spot in music when you work at something and get the instrumentation and harmonies right,” says Peter. “It’s a lot of fun.”

The Next Movement

Peter and Marie and their respective spouses are looking forward to being part of a vibrant community when they move to The Mather. Peter explains, “We were mainly attracted to The Mather because it’s got a lively community that’s already in place. The other senior living communities we looked at are places where you slow down.”

Marie and her husband are delighted to stay close to D.C. for the music and theater, and Marie adds, “For years, I’ve been thinking it would be nice to have everything taken care of, to not spend time on food shopping and cooking. I envision life at The Mather to be like living at a resort.”

The Mather will have cultural, social and educational programs on-site for residents, including digital media workshops, art and technology seminars, featured lecturers, and much more — including, perhaps, performances by resident musicians. And coupled with services like housekeeping, maintenance, landscaping, and culinary packages that will leave residents more time to pursue passions like making music.

The Mather in Tysons, VA, for those 62 and better, is a forward-thinking Life Plan Community that defies expectations of what senior living is supposed to be. It opens in 2024.

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