A study led by scientists of Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute in Toronto has found the first evidence that lifelong musicians experience less age-related hearing problems than non-musicians.
While hearing studies have already shown that trained musicians have highly developed auditory abilities compared to non-musicians, this is the first study to examine hearing abilities in musicians and non-musicians across the age spectrum – from 18 to 91 years of age.
Investigators wanted to determine if lifelong musicianship protects against normal hearing decline in later years, specifically for central auditory processing associated with understanding speech. Hearing problems are prevalent in the elderly, who often report having difficulty understanding speech in the presence of background noise. Scientists describe this as the "cocktail party problem". Part of this difficulty is due to an age-related decrease in the ability to detect and discriminate acoustic information from the environment.
"What we found was that being a musician may contribute to better hearing in old age by delaying some of the age-related changes in central auditory processing. This advantage widened considerably for musicians as they got older when compared to similar-aged non-musicians," said lead investigator Benjamin Rich Zendel.
In the study, 74 musicians (ages 19-91) and 89 non-musicians (ages 18-86) participated in a series of auditory assessments. A musician was defined as someone who started musical training by the age of 16, continued practicing music until the day of testing, and had an equivalent of at least six years of formal music lessons. Non-musicians in the study did not play any musical instrument.
Scientists found that being a musician did not offer any advantage in the pure-tone thresholds test, across the age span. However, in the three other auditory tasks – mistuned harmonic detection, gap detection and speech-in-noise – musicians showed a clear advantage over non-musicians and this advantage gap widened as both groups got older. By age 70, the average musician was able to understand speech in a noisy environment as well as an average 50 year old non-musician, suggesting that lifelong musicianship can delay this age-related decline by 20 years.
REHACARE.de; Source: Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care