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The problems of aging ears less evident among musicians, study suggests

09/13/2011 01:00 EDT | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 EST
TORONTO - Aging musicians appear to have a significant advantage over their non-musical peers.

A new study suggests that years of playing and practising music may protect musicians' ability to process what they hear as they get older.

In particular, the study finds the increasingly tricky task of tuning in to speech and tuning out background noise is easier for musicians than for people who don't play an instrument.

The research, which is published Tuesday in the journal Psychology and Aging, compares non-musicians to people with lifelong musical experience, whether they are professional or amateurs musicians.

"It's fairly common knowledge that older adults have difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments. And that ability slowly gets worse as we get older," says lead author Benjamin Zendel, of the University of Montreal's Brams Institute.

"What we've shown here is that musicians, as they get older, don't get quite as bad their non-musician counterparts, to the point where a musician at age 70 is able to understand speech and noise at about the same level as a non-musician who's at age 50."

Zendel did the research while he was a PhD student at the University of Toronto. He conducted the study at the Rotman Research Institute, part of Toronto's Baycrest Hospital.

The work backs up findings published earlier this year by researchers with Northwestern University's auditory neuroscience laboratory.

The head of that lab, Nina Kraus, says this doesn't mean playing music preserves hearing. Musicians can damage their hearing if they don't protect their ears from loud music.

Earlier this year '80s pop giant Phil Collins announced he was quitting the music industry, citing hearing loss as a major factor in his decision.

What it means, Kraus explains, is that in performing music over a period of years, people build up a part of their brain that is involved in the processing of sound.

As with many functions of the brain, that ability declines as people age. But because musicians have built up greater reserves, their abilities in this area decline more slowly than non-musicians.

The finding has implications not just for older people, Kraus says.

"What is important, I think, is not only what we're seeing in older adults. But this seems to be the case across the lifespan. And so the educational implications are enormous. Because it really would appear that musical experience helps you become a better learner."

Zendel's study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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