Musicians Have Better Hearing as They Age

Pardon me? Hearing loss as we age may be common, but difficulty hearing speech in noisy places is one of the most common complaints among healthy older adults, regardless of ability to hear pure tones in an audiogram test. Each May, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association celebrates Better Speech and Hearing Month, so here are some surprising findings from two recent studies to help you keep your hearing nimble as you age.

Musicians have better hearing when they age

Two recent studies found that lifelong musicians have a distinct advantage hearing conversations in busy environments. “Musical experience, actually making music, has a very profound effect on how we process sound. Musicians have lots of practice using auditory working memory that benefits them in all kinds of other communications,” says Nina Kraus, Ph.D. and Principal Investigator at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University.

Kraus recruited two small groups of middle-aged musicians and non-musicians, aged 45-65, and ran a series of tests to measure their ability to hear speech in noisy conditions and their ability to track sound. ‘The musicians had begun musical training before the age of 9, and had consistently played a musical instrument throughout their lives.

Kraus found that musicians were 40% better than non-musicians at hearing speech in noise and were significantly better at recalling what was said a few seconds earlier. Hearing speech in noise correctly requires tracking pitch, timing and timbre, as well as the ability to exclude irrelevant background noises. Kraus’ study was published in PLoS ONE.

A larger, more recent study by Benjamin Zendel, Ph.D. and Claude Alain, Ph.D. at the Rotman Research Institute, University of Toronto, replicated Kraus’ findings. Zendel and Alain found that active musical experience throughout life could help delay speech-in-noise hearing problems by as much as 20 years. Zendel and Alain’s study measured auditory processing abilities among 74 lifelong musicians and 89 non-musicians between the ages of 18-91. The study was released online ahead of publication in Psychology and Aging.

How to help keep your hearing nimble as you age:

Play any musical instrument. Kraus says, “We learn best what we care about. If there is an instrument or a genre of music you care about, that’s the right one for you.” The active creation of music requires both hearing and managing timing–listening and processing what went before and what comes next–in order to exercise and build auditory working memory and speech-in-noise skills.

It doesn’t matter if you play well! Kraus advises that regardless of your ability to play, your hearing ability will improve with practice.

Start young. Research shows that the earlier you start playing a musical instrument the better. Kraus advocates, “Musical education is part of your overall education. It’s not about becoming a violinist or a flautist, it’s about helping children become better learners, better readers and better communicators throughout their lives.”

Is it too late to start when you are older? Kraus says while there is no conclusive proof yet that musical training started later in life can reverse speech in noise difficulties, she has every reason to believe that it’s possible. She recommends playing a musical instrument as the single best thing you can do to improve your hearing.

CONNECT THE DOTS

Visit Brainvolts, the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory website at Northwestern University to find out more about music, hearing and the brain. Check out two software programs that aim to improve auditory and working memory functions in older adults: Neurotone’s Listening and Communication Enhancement (LACE) program; and Posit Science Corporation’s brainHQ. For additional reading about the benefits of music, you may like This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin; and Music, Language and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel.

Originally published on GE Healthy Outlook, May 9, 2012. Copyright Jane Langille.

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