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Musicians Hear Better Into Old Age

• September 13, 2011 • 4:54 PM

Canadian researchers find playing a musical instrument delays the onset of age-related hearing decline.

Musicians retain the ability to distinguish speech in noisy conditions far longer than non-musicians. That’s the key finding of a just-published study by two Canadian researchers, who report playing music seems to delay the decay in an aging brain’s central auditory processing system.

“This finding suggests that continued practice throughout life may alleviate some of the age-related decline in speech perception often experienced by older adults,” Benjamin Rich Zendel and Claude Alain of the Rotman Research Centre and University of Toronto report in the journal Psychology and Aging.

Zendel and Alain conducted a study of 74 musicians ranging in age from 19 to 91, and 89 non-musicians ranging in age from 18 to 86. The musicians had started training no later than age 16, had at least six years of formal music lessons, and were still practicing regularly. Non-musicians had no more than two years of musical training of any kind, and did not play an instrument.

Wearing earphones, the participants completed four auditory tests which measured different hearing-related skills. One assessed pure tone thresholds, the ability to detect sounds that grow increasingly quieter; another measured the ability to detect a short gap in an otherwise continuous sound; a third measured the ability to detect the relationship between different sound frequencies.

The fourth and final test measured the ability to hear speech in a noisy environment. Participants heard — or attempted to hear — a series of six sentences against varying levels of background noise. Those who identified more of the sentences’ key words were given higher scores.

“We observed that musicians experienced less age-related decline for both gap-detection and speech-in-noise thresholds,” the researchers report. “For speech-in-noise thresholds, the relationship between practice and performance suggests that the accumulation of practice over many years may result in preservation of this ability by musicians.”

They add that there was no difference between musicians and non-musicians on the first test, which measured the detection of increasingly softer sounds. (Depending on the genre of music one plays, this ability could actually be impaired; a 2006 study of amateur pop and rock musicians found a significant minority suffer from tinnitus and hypersensitivity to sound.)

This finding suggests musicians aren’t better than non-musicians at hearing sounds against a quiet background. Rather, their brains are better able to make sense of the jumble of sounds they come in contact with.

Why would this be? “One possibility is that continued practice of a musical instrument may enhance cognitive reserve,” Zendel and Alain write. “The continued practice of a musical instrument may also result in greater neural efficiency, greater neural capacity, or the ability for compensation via the recruitment of additional brain regions during audition processing.”

“Being a musician is not a panacea in terms of preventing age-related cognitive decline; however, there are numerous benefits,” the researchers note. “Being a musician is a highly demanding cognitive activity … requiring highly developed working and long-term memory, in addition to integrated and precise auditory, motor, sensory and visual processing.”

All that stimulation, it seems, keeps the brain sharp in a variety of ways. This study provides one more example.

If, at age 75, you can easily hold a conversation amidst the din of a crowded restaurant, thank your music teacher — and the parent who insisted you practice.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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