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If you’re worried about your memory it might be time to pick up your old guitar. Kate Corr discusses the link between memory and music and the famous musicians who have carried on playing despite a dementia diagnosis

When country legend Glenn Campbell announced his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s in 2011 he decided to embark on a farewell tour…which ended up lasting two years and 151 songs. Not bad for a man who’s 78, let alone one who is living with dementia.

But Campbell isn’t the only musician to have continued performing after a dementia diagnosis. For example, Mott The Hoople drummer Dale Buffin Griffin was diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of 58 but continued playing in the 70s band (most famous for the hit song All the Young Dudes) for another three years, only recently retiring. Indeed, friends noted that he continued performing all the old tracks flawlessly, although he had trouble assembling his drum kit.

Then there’s AC/DC founder and legendary guitarist Malcolm Young, 61, who only quit performing last year, despite showing signs of dementia (according to his brother Angus) since 2008.

And it’s not only pop musicians who are able to carry on doing the job they love. World renowned classical composer Aaron Copland lived for several years with dementia yet was still able to conduct many years after the disease onset. ‘He forgot questions you asked and answers he gave, occasionally he had to be reminded where he was,’ a friend recalled. ‘But he could conduct his famous work Appalachian Spring up until the very end of his life.’

Scientists believe they may have an idea why musicians seem able to keep going for longer than expected. Professor Paul Robertson, a concert violinist who has studied music in dementia care, believes people with dementia retain their musical memory far longer than any other. ‘We know the auditory system of the brain is the first to fully function – at 16 weeks – which means that you are musically receptive long before anything else,’ he explains. ‘So it’s a case of first in-last out, when it comes to a dementia-type breakdown of memory.’

But can staying musically active, particularly playing an instrument, also help to slow the onset of dementia? Research so far seems to suggest that it might. ‘Music’s role in memory is an enormously privileged one,’ claims scientist Nina Kraus, who headed major research in the US, which found that subjects who had learnt to play a musical instrument logged faster responses to speech than those who had not — even if they hadn’t picked up their instrument for decades. The research, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that learning a musical instrument could continue to have benefits even in old age.

‘Music engages the totality of the brain — centres that process … sound, memory, attention, language, sight, touch and more,’ she adds. ‘It sparks neural activity within each of these centres and sets them in motion together in a way few other experiences can. It’s extremely powerful.’