According to a new study from Northwestern University lifelong musical experience has an impact on the aging process and that age-related delays in neural timing are not inevitable and can be avoided or offset with musical training. By measuring the automatic brain responses of younger and older musicians and non-musicians to speech sounds, researchers in Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory discovered that older musicians had a distinct neural timing advantage.
“The older musicians not only outperformed their older non-musician counterparts, they encoded the sound stimuli as quickly and accurately as the younger non-musicians,” said Northwestern neuroscientist Nina Kraus, one of the study authors. “This reinforces the idea that how we actively experience sound over the course of our lives has a profound effect on how our nervous system functions.” The researchers’ findings suggest that you may be able to train the brain to avoid some aspects of hearing loss, even later in life.
Previous studies from Kraus’ Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory found that musical training may also offset losses in memory and difficulties hearing speech in noise, two common complaints of older adults. The lab has been extensively studying the effects of musical experience on brain plasticity across the life span in normal and clinical populations, and in educational settings.
However, researchers say that their new findings don’t demonstrate that musicians have an advantage in every neural response to sound. What the study shows is that musical experience selectively affected the timing of sound elements that are important in distinguishing one consonant from another.
So if you’ve also wanted to play the piano or take up guitar, don’t put it off a moment longer.