A new study suggests lifelong musical experiences can retard certain aspects of the aging process. Specifically, Northwestern University scientists discovered a lifetime of musical training slows some aspects of hearing and memory loss.
The experts believe the findings suggest age-related delays in neural timing (the ability of the brain to decode and then recode audio stimuli) are not inevitable and can be avoided or offset with musical training.
The study is the first to provide biological evidence that lifelong musical experience has an impact on the aging process.
In the study, researchers in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory discovered that older musicians had a distinct neural timing advantage. This was determined by measuring the automatic brain responses of younger and older musicians and non-musicians to speech sounds.
“The older musicians not only outperformed their older non-musician counterparts, they encoded the sound stimuli as quickly and accurately as the younger non-musicians,” said Northwestern neuroscientist and co-author Nina Kraus, Ph.D.
“This reinforces the idea that how we actively experience sound over the course of our lives has a profound effect on how our nervous system functions.”
The study is published online in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.
“These are very interesting and important findings,” said Don Caspary, Ph.D., a nationally known researcher on age-related hearing loss. “They support the idea that the brain can be trained to overcome, in part, some age-related hearing loss.”
“The new Northwestern data, along with additional with recent animal data from Michael Merzenich and his colleagues at University of California, San Francisco, strongly suggest that intensive training even late in life could improve speech processing in older adults and, as a result, improve their ability to communicate in complex, noisy acoustic environments,” Caspary added.
Previous studies suggest that musical training offsets losses in memory, and difficulties hearing speech in noise — two common complaints of older adults.
However, Kraus warns that the current study’s findings do not prove that musician’s have a neural timing advantage in every neural response to sound. “Instead, this study showed that musical experience selectively affected the timing of sound elements that are important in distinguishing one consonant from another.”
Source: Northwestern University