Musicians have better hearing late in life

NORTHWESTERN (US) — Older adults with musical training appear to hear and remember sounds better than non-musicians of the same age.

“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,” says Nina Kraus, professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern University and co-author of the study published recently in the journal PLoS One.

“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, the researchers tested 18 musicians and 19 non-musicians between the ages of 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 9 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.

The experience of extracting meaningful sounds from a complex soundscape—and of remembering sound sequences—enhances the development of auditory skills, says Kraus.

“The neural enhancements we see in musically trained individuals are not just an amplifying or ‘volume knob’ effect,” says Kraus. “Playing music engages their ability to extract relevant patterns, including the sound of their own instrument, harmonies and rhythms.”

Music training “fine-tunes” the nervous system, according to Kraus, a longtime advocate of music in the K-12 curriculum. “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,” Kraus says.

“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,” Kraus adds. “Music experience bolsters the elements that combat age-related communication problems.”

Under Kraus’ direction, Northwestern researchers are studying musicians from childhood to old age and discovering how memory, attention, and everyday sound-based activities such as listening to speech in noise are altered in the musician’s brain.

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