Knowing how to play a musical instrument may protect against some of the ill effects of aging, a new study suggests.

The results show older individuals who have extensive musical training are better able to distinguish speech within a noisy environment than those who have limited training or have never played a musical instrument.

In addition, musical training may abate some of the memory decline people experience with age. In the study, participants with musical training were able to hear, remember and repeat a series of numbers and words better than those with little musical training.

"Lifelong musical training appears to confer advantages in at least two important functions known to decline with age memory and the ability to hear speech in noise," said study researcher Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

The new study was small, but the results agree with an earlier work that has found older adults with musical experience perform better on cognitive tests of memory and attention than those without musical experience. Other research suggests learning to play a musical instrument can improve learning and the understanding of language.

The new study was published in today's (May 11) issue of the journal PLoS One.

Hearing decline

As adults age, their ability to understand speech in a noisy environment diminishes. Part of the decline is due to hearing loss, but not all of it. Adults who can hear the same range of sounds can differ dramatically in their ability to hear speech in noisy surroundings, Kraus said.

The new study involved 18 musicians and 19 non-musicians ages 45 to 65. The musicians had played a musical instrument since they were 9 years old. Non-musicians had fewer than three years of musical experience.

In one test, subjects were required to listen to and repeat phrases read over a background noise. Those with musical training were superior in this regard. This enhanced ability to distinguish speech may be due, at least in part, to the fact that musicians must learn to distinguish specific sounds within melodies.

"Musicians are always pulling out acoustic information from a complex soundscape," Kraus said.

Difficulty hearing speech in a noisy environment may cause older adults to avoid social situations, such as birthday parties or dinners at restaurants with friends, Kraus said told MyHealthNewsDaily. This can lead to social isolation and depression, she said.

Music memory

In another test designed to assess auditory memory, participants had to hear and repeat a series of numbers and words in a specific order. Those with musical training were also better at this task. The exceptional auditory memory of the musicians likely contributes to their ability to hear sound in a noisy environment as well, Kraus said.

"When the listening situation is a complicated one, if you have an easy time remembering what has just been said, that makes the whole listening situation easier, Kraus said.

Musical training had no effect on participants' visual memory, which was assessed with a task that asked subjects to remember the order in which a screen of boxes changed color.

"If the materials that you work with are sound, then it is reasonable to suppose that all of your faculties involved with taking it in [and] holding it in memory ... should be sharpened," Kraus said. "Music experience bolsters the elements that combat age-related communication problems."

More work is needed to understand the effects of musical training on aging, the researchers say. In particular, studies should try to distinguish whether the beneficial effects require a lifelong engagement in the activity, or if the same effects are seen in individuals who no longer play an instrument, but were trained early on in life.

Pass it on: Musical training may counteract some deleterious effects of aging on hearing and memory.

Editors note: This article has been updated with comments from study researcher Nina Kraus.

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