Those activities were: 1) reading, 2) playing board games, and 3) learning a musical instrument.
Interestingly, only one physical activity lowered the risk for dementia -- dancing!
The idea is that these activities help build cognitive reserve, which, more simply said, is how the brain reacts to damage.
Playing music has been found to build gray matter in the somatosensory areas, premotor cortex, inferior temporal and frontal regions, as well as the cerebellum. And playing music has been found to increase white matter, specifically myelin, which affects the processing speed between neurons.
The interesting thing with the white matter finding is that scientists posit that its increase is caused by deliberate practice. This was the impetus for focusing specifically on music instruction at the BRiTE program, the flagship program offering cognitive stimulation to people experiencing beyond-typical memory loss.
BRiTE's pedagogy breaks each class into four components to simulate deliberate practice: First, members start with warm-ups, where they are reviewing on their marimba which bar represents which note. They play scales and arpeggios, and have learned to move between keys. They move on to sight-reading -- members have learned to read notes on the staff and are challenged to sight-read a new melody in each class, an excellent workout for their working memory. They then do a group composition, each adding notes on to a melody. They break the melody into chunks to help memorize it, and after several repetitions, the melody is erased and they repeat it from memory. Members are challenged again at the end of class to recall the melody. Finally, members work on their long-term memory with African polyphonic repertoire -- each part is slightly different and fits together to create an intricate, interlocking song.
Not all benefits are found by learning an instrument -- listening can also be beneficial. In 2014 there was a study of 89 people with dementia over 10 weeks who had either regular singing or regular listening sessions. There was maintained or enhanced cognition in both groups, as well as maintained or enhanced mood and quality of life. There was also improved general cognition, attention, and executive function compared with standard care. They were still improved at the six-month checkup.
BRiTE is launching a series of music listening classes, both to allow students to interact with music's building blocks and to challenge students to track one of the most elusive pieces of music as it happens in time -- form.
Thanks to the Heinz Endowments, who took that video during the BrainHub conference!
Jennie will continue to present her work as it evolves at BRiTE -- for more information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.