23 July 2015


An American friend sent me an article suggesting that an interest in music can help offset the arrival of dementia in elderly people.

Today all over the world there are said to be 84 million elderly persons who pass their final months in a state of dementia. This is very sad for them and a source of great distress to their families. The article says there are five million Americans aged 65 and over right now with dementia, and the figure is rapidly rising.

So my friend's article set me wondering whether those of us who participate in traditional jazz are in fact doing ourselves a great deal of good in the struggle to retain our soundness of mind. 

Like many of you, I guess, I have long thought that we should  not allow ourselves to vegetate as we enter advanced years. We need to take regular exercise and also keep our minds alert. Cycling, walking, jogging, swimming, reading, conversing, pursuing interests and hobbies - all these activities surely help in keeping the little grey cells in good shape. 

Likewise, even though the scientists have a long way to go in understanding dementia, they are already urging us to stay active, have hobbies and be socially engaged.

Many senior citizens - even some in their 90s - still feel the benefit of playing musical instruments regularly. And think of the great Lionel Ferbos in New Orleans, who led his band until beyond the age of 100.

If you play in a traditional jazz band, your mind contains an amazing amount of stuff that you must constantly bring out of the mental cupboard and refresh - all those tunes, chord sequences, and pieces of historical information.

You quickly notice that many traditional jazz players are well into their eighth decade. And I don't hear of many former traditional jazz musicians suffering from dementia. Maybe this demonstrates the value of this particular hobby.

I once gave a concert with some other elderly musicians in a secure care home, where the residents were suffering from dementia. (It was rewarding to note how well some of these persons responded to our music - but that's another issue.) What particularly struck me was that the average age of our band members was conspicuously higher than that of the unfortunate residents. It made me wonder whether our music had helped us to avoid their fate.

Some researchers believe that you can defer dementia by five years if you speak two languages. And they are wondering whether music has the same effect as a 'second language'.

Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, who studies cognitive functioning among musicians at Emory University, said: 'If you can delay the presentation of dementia by five years, then you add an extra five years of functioning to an individual at the end of the life span. In terms of fiscal cost and everything, that's quite a lot.' She found that in old age former musicians who had given up playing were still better at object-naming and rapid mental processing than those who had never played at all. Also, those who began playing before the age of 9 had better verbal working memory functions than those who started later or didn't play at all.

Beth Kallmyer, Vice-President for constituent services at the Alzheimer's Association, said that - for people already with dementia - some sort of music therapy, especially if the music has some significance for the listener,  can reduce behavioural issues and have a calming influence (perhaps confirming what I noticed at the concert to which I referred).

There will doubtless be plenty of research on this subject in the years to come. One big question for us will be: do you have to play traditional jazz to get all the benefits, or can you still benefit from just listening to and appreciating it?
Footnotes: I have had responses to the above:
Yes indeed, an interesting topic.  I've also dwelt on a related subject: is it ever too late to take up a musical instrument?  Are there some instruments which are easier to take up than others as age advances? As we know, it is physically and mentally demanding, and I understand that different instruments suit different people.  But maybe there is also a sliding scale of age-related suitability. From your experience can you recall who has taken up what and when and with what degree of success?

Ralph: I personally know of only five musicians who started to learn instruments from scratch when they were already 60 years old or more (one of them slightly younger than that). Three chose the banjo, one the clarinet and one the piano. They all worked hard at it and I'm pleased to report that they all now play in bands.
Chris (pianist) has drawn my attention to this website:


The writer makes the point that you have to 'use it or lose it' and that taking up a musical instrument in old age (as a beginner) can be beneficial.
Jazz saxophone / clarinet player John has written this:

Ivan, I agree with your comments concerning onset of memory loss. IF memory loss is because the grey cells are not frequently used, then surely playing as opposed to listening to music is to my mind going to be more helpful. However, one needs to be aware that a physical reason, namely lack of blood supply is very likely to be a very real problem, in which case regular exercise is surely of great help in delaying the inevitable. Low-fat diet is probably also very helpful, if a physical condition is the cause. Since brain cells cease to re-generate, heavy drinking could be a factor, though judging by the excessive drinking habits of some musicians, who nevertheless still have super memories,  in my opinion drink is not likely a meaningful reason. As an aside, lack of sleep severely affects my memory!  Though this  recovers after resting.