Moderate hearing loss affects 30% of people by the age of 60, but research and studies suggest that cognitively demanding activities, such as playing a musical instrument, can delay the effects of aging. According to a study published in the journal Psychology and Aging, lifelong musicians have better hearing well into old age. In this study, Toronto researchers performed hearing tests on 74 adult musicians and of 89 non-musicians from ages 18 to 91 years old and compared results.
Researchers defined a musician as someone who started musical training by the age of 16 years and has continued playing until the day of testing; a non-musician has not played a musical instrument for more than two years. Both the musician and non-musician groups were given four auditory tests. Researchers found similar results among both musician and non-musician groups when they had to detect sounds as they steadily became quieter; however, musicians did have an advantage over non-musicians in detecting speech over background noise, short gaps in sound and changes in frequency. Typically the differences between the two groups only widen with age. Musicians were found to preserve a better level of hearing sensitivity into old age.
Based on this study, a 70-year-old lifelong musician was able to understand speech in a noisy environment as well as the average 50-year-old non-musician. Musicians were better at listening tasks associated with auditory processing in the brain. Both groups tested reflected normal age-related changes to the inner ear, proposing the idea that playing a musical instrument may have long-lasting neural benefits. Aging impacts the central auditory processing system which causes hearing difficulty in environments with extraneous background noises. Musicians are noticeably better at distinguishing speech against background noise since they use their hearing ability at a high level on a daily basis to hear tones and pitches from playing their instrument.
Practicing music for years can slow age-related changes in the brain. Built up hearing skills in musicians can also offset some memory deficits of aging. Musicians can extract meaningful sounds, remember sequences of sound, and can separate the harmony from the melody within music. Through these lifelong practices, musicians have trained their brain to listen and link connections in the brain to process sound differently than non-musicians.
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