Hearing the Music Loud and Clear

Musicians less likely to experience age-related decline in hearing

(RxWiki News) It may go against what your parents always warned you about, but lifelong musicians actually experience less hearing loss as they age.

The Canadian study, which set out to determine whether lifelong musicianship protects against later hearing loss, marks the first to examine hearing abilities in both musicians and non-musicians between the ages of 18 and 91.

"Consider music lessons to help preserve your hearing."

Benjamin Rich Zendel, a lead researcher from Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute in Canada, said that the study found that musicians may have better hearing in old age because they have delayed some of the age-related changes in central auditory processing, which is associated with understanding speech.

He said that the advantage widens considerably as musicians age as compared to their non-musician counterparts.

Hearing problems are common among the elderly. Much of the hearing decrease is age-related and affects the ability to detect and discern acoustic information from the environment, often referred to as the "cocktail party problem."

During the study 74 musicians between the ages of 19 and 91 and 89 non-musicians between the ages of 18 and 86 participated in a series of auditory assessments. For the purpose of the study, musicians were defined as individuals who began formal music training by age 16, had at least six years of formal training and continued practicing up to the assessments.

Participants wore headphones and completed a variety of hearing tasks in a soundproof room including listening for tones that grew increasingly quieter, listening for different sound frequencies and detecting brief gaps of silence during an otherwise continuous sound. They also were asked to listen for spoken speech while also being subjected to background noise.

Neither group had an advantage in the assessment of listening for tones. But in the other three tests, musicians had a clear advantage, with that advantage widening as both groups aged. At the age of 70, the average musicians was able to understand speech in a noisy environment as well as an average 50-year-old non-musician, suggesting that being a lifelong musician may delay age-related hearing decline by 20 years.

Researchers hypothesize that being a lifelong musician mitigates age-related hearing changes in the brains because they use their auditory systems at a higher level on a regular basis.

The clinical study was published on Sept. 13 in journal Psychology and Aging.

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Review Date: 
September 19, 2011