Learning to play a musical instrument helps keep people young, according to a new study.
Researchers found that musicians aged 45 to 65 excel in memory and hearing speech in noise compared to non-musicians.
While a growing body of research finds musical training gives students learning advantages in the classroom, a new study has found musical training can also offset some of the negative effects of growing old.
Study co-author Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in the United States, said: “Lifelong musical training appears to confer advantages in at least two important functions known to decline with age - memory and the ability to hear speech in noise.
“Difficulty hearing speech in noise is among the most common complaints of older adults, but age-related hearing loss only partially accounts for this impediment that can lead to social isolation and depression.
“It’s well known that adults with virtually the same hearing profile can differ dramatically in their ability to hear speech in noise.”
To find out why, researchers at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory tested 18 musicians and 19 non-musicians, aged 45 to 65, for speech in noise, auditory working memory, visual working memory and auditory temporal processing.
The musicians who began playing an instrument at age nine or earlier and consistently played an instrument throughout their lives bested the non-musician group in all but visual working memory, where both groups showed nearly identical ability.
Doctor Kraus said the experience of extracting meaningful sounds from a complex soundscape - and of remembering sound sequences enhances the development of auditory skills.
She said: “The neural enhancements we see in musically-trained individuals are not just an amplifying or ‘volume knob’ effect.
“Playing music engages their ability to extract relevant patterns, including the sound of their own instrument, harmonies and rhythms.”
Dr Kraus said music training “fine-tunes” the nervous system.
She added: “Sound is the stock in trade of the musician in much the same way that a painter of portraits is keenly attuned to the visual attributes of the paint that will convey his or her subject.
“If the materials that you work with are sound, then it is reasonable to suppose that all of your faculties involved with taking it in, holding it in memory and relating physically to it should be sharpened.
“Music experience bolsters the elements that combat age-related communication problems.”
The study was published in the latest issue of the online science journal PLoS One.