Health Check: Piano and the brain

He's admittedly no Nat King Cole, but Roger Menke wasn't about to miss the opportunity to take two weeks of free piano lessons at the University of South Florida to learn how to play some favorite old time ballads from the 1950s and '60s.

"We had great singers, great bands, jazz -- the works. As an 80-year-old, I said I have to jump in now," Menke said.

Menke is part of a study at USF to examine the effects of intensive piano instruction on cognitive performance.

"What's exciting is, it has bimanual coordination, it has progressive difficulty, which is so important in cognitive training," said Dr. Jennifer Bugos, an assistant professor of music education.

Participants had to have little to no previous piano training to be part of the study.

During an intense two-week period of time with 3 1/2 hours of daily instruction, Bugos is working with USF's School of Communication Sciences to see how cortisol levels, brain activity, memory and musical aptitude change after the training.

"If you ask any of them, are you really using your brain? They will tell you, yes, it was more challenging than I thought it was going to be. But after I finish it, I can see the progress," Bugos said.

"I think I feel a little sharper in memory," Menke said.

Chances are Roger Menke isn't imagining things. Bugos recently published a similar study in the journal Aging and Mental Health that followed participants over a six-month period.

It showed piano lessons could play a key intervention role in the aging process.