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Healthy Aging

I felt silly taking guitar lessons with my 8-year-old son. But learning as we age has vast benefits.

Regardless of age, we are all able to learn new things. According to experts in brain health, it can improve our lives as we age.

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Years ago, I was invited to a camping party. As the fire began to roar, some people grabbed acoustic guitars and began to play. These were ordinary people, not pros or prodigies, but, in the moment, their music was mesmerizing. They sang in harmony, improvised guitar solos, and shared joy in a way I had never seen before.

I love music. I had been to plenty of concerts, but had never been part of one. I vowed I would learn how to play in such a session. Luckily, my 8-year-old son also wanted to learn guitar, so we took lessons together. At the time, I held the absurd belief that only young people took music lessons. When I confided in our teacher that I felt silly learning as an adult, he looked at me as if to say, “What is wrong with you?”

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What he knew, and what I would gradually discover, is that, regardless of age, we are all able to learn new things, including musical instruments, languages, and any number of other activities. According to experts in brain health, not only can you learn, but you should — your brain and body will thank you for it.

This is not just conventional wisdom — there’s real science behind it.

In his book, The Laws of Brainjo: The Art & Science of Molding a Musical Mind, neurologist and banjo player Dr. Josh Turknett explains that the pathways in our brain become worn and harden due to age. Learning new things forces the brain to employ its natural neuroplasticity — its ability to change and adapt. This means it must forge new pathways, growing and changing to learn new things.

This not only keeps the brain limber, by offering it real exercise, but, research suggests, it can help stave off loss of memory and cognitive function. According to Turknett, it might even help hold off Alzheimer’s symptoms, keeping us mentally sharp for much longer than we otherwise might be.

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Dr. Emily Deans Brideau, a psychiatrist in the Boston area, says that studies of stroke recovery and brain illnesses have shown that, even in older people, the brain retains the ability to “adjust to new inputs and bypass broken down circuits and neurons.”

“A new skill that combines new ways of auditory and verbal processing, like music and small motor proficiency, can take advantage of this adaptability and encourage the brain to increase synaptic plasticity,” says Deans Brideau, who plays the ukulele. In fact, a 2007 German study found that teaching stroke patients to play music on digital pianos or drum pads increased their motor skills significantly.

Moreover, there appears to be a virtuous cycle when it comes to healthy lifestyle and brain health, according to Art Kramer, director of the Center for Cognitive & Brain Health at Northeastern University.

“Continuing to be physically active, cognitively engaged, socially connected, and eating a healthy diet have all been shown to enhance our ability to learn new skills through the life span,” Kramer says.

When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, some songs are tailor-made for people to play together, no matter their level: simple enough that a beginner can contribute, but with enough complexity that master musicians can invent variations, improvise endlessly, and surprise and delight each other.

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I’m in my friend Frank’s basement, playing such a song — ”Feelin’ Alright?” written by a British rocker from the band Traffic, in 1968. Playing guitar through cobbled-together sound equipment, I lean into the song’s two-chord structure, playing big open chords and grinning. I make sure to give space for my friends to improvise. Whenever we can, we get together like this and make something more beautiful than any of us could by ourselves.

When it feels right, I begin singing the lyrics: “Seems I’ve got to have a change of scene.” Indeed, these music sessions — our version of church and fellowship — is my change of scene. They sweep away a week’s worth of stress and frustration and replace it with a sense of peace.

All of the people in this group are better musicians than I am; they’ve been doing it 20 years longer. But that’s no problem. All it takes is a measure of humility, an open heart, and open ears. The biggest trick to playing in a group is knowing when to not play.

In his book, Turknett talks about slowing time. He suggests we think about the year between our fourth and fifth birthdays — and how endless it seemed — and compare that with how fast a year can blow by for a busy adult. The discrepancy, he says, is because we were learning so much during childhood, shaping our perception of time.

It strikes me that learning an instrument slows time, but making music does even more, because, when you’re lost in the fun of it, it consumes all your concentration and requires you to be completely in the present, erasing all other concerns. Tom Petty once said that music was the only “real magic” he’d ever encountered, and this is, I think, what he must have been talking about.

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The song ends, and we begin a new one. It’s is unfamiliar. We don’t know it yet, and there are a few issues as we struggle with some tricky timing, and a lick we can’t quite nail down. It’s fun. So fun. But it’s not transcendent. It is not quite yet magic. But that’s OK. We’re still learning.


David Bulley is a teacher, writer, storyteller, and musician. You can find The Dave Bulley Band at facebook.com/TheDaveBulleyBand. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.