This Healthy Habit Can Help Reduce Your Dementia Risk—and It Has Nothing to Do with Diet or Exercise

A growing body of research suggests that a lot of our dementia risk is in our own hands.

The brain-boosting Rx most research focuses on is related to consuming a well-balanced diet, moving our bodies and staying mentally and socially active. These are definitely all still vital (see the 13 scientifically-proven things that could make you more likely to get Alzheimer's for a reminder!), but a new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society highlights another very impactful habit: Playing music.

According to the meta-analysis of 21 previous studies playing music—rather than just listening to it—can improve quality of life and mood while slowing the progression of dementia or mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The study defines MCI as "a preclinical state between normal cognitive aging and Alzheimer's disease."

Related: This Healthy Habit Can Help Boost Brain Health Later in Life

This new finding might be relevant to more of us than you'd probably guess: About 20% of Americans 65 and older experience some form of MCI, which often progresses to officially diagnosable forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

An illustration of a brain surrounded by scratches
An illustration of a brain surrounded by scratches

Getty Images / Jolygon

Previous research has hinted at the fact that music as a hobby in general (say, listening or singing along) may be able to improve the quality of life among seniors with MCI. In this study, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh dug into already-completed studies involving 1,472 people and discovered that active participation in music can yield a small but significant positive outcome on cognitive health and sharpness. The beneficial effect of music participation is about on par with the advantages of regular exercise. (ICYMI, walking just 3 times per week could reduce your dementia risk.)

Related: 7 Sneaky Signs You Could Have Cognitive Decline, According to Experts

"Participating in music, like singing in a choir or playing in a drum circle, is a safe, engaging activity that our research demonstrates can support cognition at a critical time for older adults facing cognitive decline," says study lead author Jennie L. Dorris. "Based on this research, what we were able to find is that active music making, no matter the type, is helpful for general thinking and memory."

Looking forward, the team of study authors from the University of Pittsburgh hope to analyze more about how improvisation while playing music might benefit the brains of those with MCI, plus the potential dementia-preventing properties of music.

As we continue to learn more, it certainly can't hurt to dust off that old high school band instrument. Perhaps you can work your way up to playing this #1 song for exercise to pump you up to work out after? Make both a regular habit and your your brain and your body will be well on their way to staying in tip-top shape.