All those years of playing an instrument, practicing scales, and rehearsing regularly can payoff in midlife and beyond, new research finds. The advantage musicians have may well be between their ears.
This study found that people with four or more decades of musical training appear to have sharper thinking and hearing skills than their less musically inclined peers. Better yet, these benefits seem to buffer against some age-related memory and auditory declines later in life.
In the experiment, published in the May 11 issue of PLoS One, scientists tested 18 musicians and 19 non-musicians (ages 45 to 65) who all had normal hearing. They measured their ability to pick up speech in a noisy place, which becomes harder as you get older, and is a skill that other research has shown to be improved in younger adults (ages 18 to 30) with musical experience.
In addition, scientists evaluated participants auditory and visual working memory after they heard something or saw an image on a computer, and also measured their auditory temporal processing, or how quickly their ears could correctly detect a particular tone at different hearing levels.
Musicians were better able to hear in more challenging noise environments and also had significantly better auditory working memory. Non-musicians could only perform at similar levels in tests of visual working memory.
Researchers were surprised to find in musicians that "the effects on hearing speech in noise, working memory, and temporal processing were strong and not subtle," says neurobiologist Nina Kraus, PhD, director of the auditory neuroscience lab at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the study's lead author.
Although the musicians in this study played the piano, violin, cello, and various brass or woodwind instruments, Kraus suspects similar effects would be seen in those with other musical talents from electric guitar to drums.
"Music fine-tunes the nervous system," explains Kraus. In other words, musical training helps sharpen all the faculties involved with taking in sounds, holding them in memory, and relating to them physically. "Music experience has a profound effect on how we interact with the world through our hearing," she says.
That's good news for older adults with extensive musical backgrounds, whose nervous systems have been shaped by their lifelong experience in making music. It has formed more "sound-to-meaning connections," suggests Kraus, and that ultimately affects how our hearing works in everyday listening situations.
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