Post by Matthew Pink
Every morning at exactly 9.00 am, just after the morning radio news program has finished, a couple of cups of coffee have been downed and a breakfast of fruit and yogurt devoured, my father-in-law sits down at the piano.
With almost religious dedication, he gets out his favorite Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy sheet music and plays solidly for an hour. Many days he plays the same piece, others he tries something new or refreshes his knowledge of a piece he played in distant sections of his past. Sometimes he even freestyles.
The sequence usually runs something like this: Sit down at the piano. Practice scales to warm up. Play Clair de Lune to complete warm up. Shuffle various books or loose folders of sheet music. Choose one. Play something relatively easy. Play something relatively difficult. Play something definitely very difficult. Play something definitely easy again
He is particularly strict about maintaining this mini-ceremony within his day for a variety of reasons. The first of these of course is pleasure. The second is that he is a very routine-focused person and he likes to keep within that routine no matter what. He says it helps make sure he keeps active. The third is that, since his 60th birthday, he has always looked for a means to keep his mind sharp, and this is the thing that matters most.
As a former lecturer in psychology, he is aware of the usefulness of brain-training games and hobbies which, he says, definitely work in maintaining the clarity of his thought processes, his memory and keep brain decay at bay that little while longer.
But is his personal testimony right? Is there scientific evidence available to back up his theory that music practice is helpful in keeping neurological and/or cerebral deterioration from your door?
Well, actually, there is.
Dr Faith Brynie, author of Brain Sense, concurs. According to Dr Brynie, the research she undertook in the writing of her book points toward the fact that music ranks number one when it comes to cognitive enhancement and development for old and young alike. Studies completed by colleagues that she consulted for the writing of the book suggested that musical practice enables older people to improve things like working memory, perceptual speed and motor skills.
Moreover, musical practice – even for those who had not played music before – was deemed to more effective than doing other brain-training exercises like crosswords or reading and writing.
On top of this, further evidence has emerged that music practice also aids a different area of frustrating deterioration in old age: hearing. Musicians aged between 45 and 65 in the study were found to be better equipped to disassociate speech in noisy environments and also possessed better levels of ‘auditory memory’ (the ability to recall and accurately describe what you think you heard).
Surprisingly, memory loss is not an inevitable part of the aging process. Instead it is like a muscle which needs to be consistently worked out in order to maintain its capacities.
There are other things you can do to keep your brain functioning with the flexibility that you would like. Diet and regular exercise, as ever, are fundamental. Foods rich in omega-3 fats and antioxidants (oily fish, fruit and vegetables) help the brain and memory and stave off those flecks of rust. Keeping socially active is important too, as are games which make your brain do a few leaps and some analytical work, games like bridge, chess or scrabble are all excellent examples of this.
It is also very much worth bearing in mind that there is no falser adage than the ‘old dog, new tricks’ one. Learning languages, new technical skills, games or recipes is perfectly possible in old age just as it is in young. It’s just up to the owner of said brain to make it work and break the comfort layer of any complacency it may have unwittingly drifted into.
Going back the original starting point of this piece, the idea of creating a routine to fit in this activities seems a good one. Turns out that psychology lecturers might well be good people to turn to when thinking about how to maintain brain sharpness in retirement. We’d all do well to remember that.