Musicians Hear Better into Old Age

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.)

from Miller-MeCune September 13th, 2011

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