Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Building Cognitive Brain Reserve

The normal aging process causes brain decline, but some lifestyle practices can enhance cognitive brain reserve.  One way that researchers measure brain decline is by examining grey matter and white matter reduction.  The outer layer of the thinking brain is grey matter, made up of densely packed brain cells responsible for information processing.  The inner layer is white matter that insulates the brain cells that transport information smoothly throughout the brain and from the brain to the body.  

A 2007 study of bilingualism launched a research agenda on what lifestyle practices can enhance cognitive brain reserve and protect against dementia.  That study showed that lifelong bilingualism helped protect cognitive brain reserve.  The theory supported by this line of research is that lifelong learning is protective against cognitive decline because challenging cognitive activities build physical brain reserves that can be measured when examining the amount of grey and white matter using brain scans.

Recent research examined the white matter integrity of lifelong musicians.  Prior research had shown that white matter integrity was stronger in both instrumentalists and vocalists than in non-musicians.  This study involved 8 lifelong professional musicians (ages 20-67 with an average age of 44, and 5 females) who began studying music as youths.  All the participants performed regularly, practiced a minimum of 3 hours per day, and played at least the piano or violin.  Their brain scans showed an increase in white matter integrity in aging musicians. 

This study suggests that highly skilled musicians can increase their cognitive brain reserves as they age, and it supports the prior research that demonstrates the challenges of language and music acquisition enhance cognitive reserves. 

Takeaway: Complex sensory-motor activities, such as music and language acquisition, may slow or reverse the normal trend of age-related brain deterioration.  Embrace lifelong learning, and maybe go practice that instrument that makes appearances on your Zoom calls!

Sources

Edna Andrews, et al., Effects of Lifelong Musicianship on White Matter Integrity and Cognitive Brain Reserve, Vol. 11 Iss. 1 Brain Sciences 67, Jan 6, 2021, https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3425/11/1/67/htm.

Vibhav Nandagiri, Keeping the Aging Brain Connected with Words and Music, Neuroscience News, Dec. 29, 2021, https://neurosciencenews.com/music-words-aging-brain-19844/.

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