Instruments and Alzheimer's

My son got an electric guitar from his uncle for his birthday, and being the opportunistic parent that I am, I decided to join him in guitar lessons.

I've never played a musical instrument before, so I was immediately struck by how playing the guitar seemed to stimulate so many different parts of my brain. My ears had to hear the music; my eyes had to see the guitar strings; my memory had to learn and remember sequences of notes and chords. There was obvious hand-eye coordination involved, as well as "muscle memory," the skill that allows a basketball player to make a perfect free throw time after time — or fingers to remember what guitar strings they have to press in order to make a chord.

I was also reading chord charts to learn new chords. There was even fast adding and subtracting involved. Let's see ... My fingers are on fret number five, now I'll move over two to get to fret seven, then three more spaces to get to fret 10, now back to fret five...

All that was in just two lessons. Then came lesson three, which combined slow playing of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" with singing the words. Check off whatever parts of the brain are in charge of verbal skills, the coordination of the mouth and hands as well as pulling up old memories of that classic song. (For me, anyway. "Hound Dog" was all new to my seven-year-old.) It seemed like playing a musical instrument was a full-brain work-out. Was it possible that playing could help ward of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia?

Sure enough, several studies have found that there is a lower risk of dementia among people who play a musical instrument.

Playing an instrument, reading and engaging in games like chess or cards reduces the risk of dementia, according to one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Surprisingly, physical activity didn't help the people in that study — except for participants in ballroom dancing, who have to remember dance steps and respond to music.

Another study done by researchers at the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University found that retired orchestra musicians were less likely to develop dementia.

Perhaps most encouraging, researchers at an American Academy of Neurology meeting reported that people who increased the amount of time they spent on intellectual activities later in life, from ages 40 to 60, significantly reduced their probability of developing Alzheimer's.

So when it comes to brain health, it's never too late to learn a musical instrument. (Or if that's not your cup of tea, that study found that activities like playing board games, exercise and gardening were beneficial.) That study tracked people for at least five year's before Alzheimer's symptoms appeared.

I have a personal stake in all this information since I had a grandfather on my dad's side of the family with dementia, as well as a grandmother on my mother's side of the family who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer's for two decades. Before Alzheimer's took its toll, she was incredibly active — raising a family, singing in church, going back to college to earn her degree and becoming a teacher. So even with new studies showing the importance of intellectual pursuits, we have to be careful not to blame Alzheimer's victims by assuming that mental laziness has brought the disease down upon them.

I'll use the results of the studies as just one more reason to pick up the guitar.

So, with fingers ready on chord A, here goes: "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog ..."

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and Tidings correspondent Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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