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Music Lessons as Child May Keep Aging Minds Sharp

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The Tiger Mothers may have been right all along: Music lessons as a kid may make you sharper decades later. A new study finds that adults with musical training appear to have sharper thinking and better hearing skills than their less musically inclined peers. Better yet, these benefits seem to buffer against some age-related memory and auditory declines later in life.

"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 Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. Her study is published in the May 11 issue of the online science journal PLoS ONE.

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. The musicians -- who began playing an instrument at age nine or earlier and consistently played an instrument throughout their lives -- beat the non-musician group in all tests except one where they showed nearly identical ability.

Kraus said that musicians’ experience of extracting meaningful sounds from a complex soundscape – and of remembering sound sequences – enhances the development of auditory skills.

In other words, musical training “fine-tunes” the nervous system. "The neural enhancements we see in musically-trained individuals are not just an amplifying or 'volume knob' effect," said Kraus, who is also a professor of neurobiology and physiology. Playing music engages their ability to extract relevant patterns, including the sound of their own instrument, harmonies and rhythms."

With only 37 participants, the study was small, but the results match those from other recent studies, including one from the University of Kansas involving 70 healthy adults age 60 to 83 who were divided into groups based on their levels of musical experience. It found that the musicians performed better on several cognitive tests than individuals who had never studied an instrument or learned how to read music.

According to a 2003 Gallup Poll, 37 percent of respondents in the United States said they play a musical instrument. Most began playing between 5 and 14 years of age.