Professional and amateur musicians are more likely to keep their hearing sharper over a lifetime, according to a new study.
"Musicians have a lot of experience extracting meaningful sounds from a complex soundscape," says Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
Kraus led a study involving 18 musicians and 19 non-musicians, between the ages of 45 and 65, that tested their ability to discern speech from background noise. Researchers also tested how well they remembered what they heard and what they saw, and how quickly they understood what they heard, all important skills for playing an instrument.
The object was to see whether the experience of distinguishing meaningful sounds from complex soundscapes, and remembering sound sequences, led to improved hearing later in life. Research has shown that playing an instrument enhances listening and comprehension skills.
Older individuals in the study - who began playing an instrument at age 9 or younger and played music consistently throughout their lives - beat the non-musician group in all but visual memory.
Kraus says it appears the musically-trained individuals had developed auditory skills apart from just being able to hear quieter sounds. They had acquired “neural enhancements,” through consistent exposure to the sound of their own instruments, as well as harmonies and rhythms that are also important to understanding speech.
Kraus says the instrument doesn’t seem to matter.
"What really seems to matter is that people actively play an instrument, and how long they play, and even how young they were when they began playing. These seem to be important factors, not the particular instrument or the genre of music that you play."