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Music-making Supports Cognitive Health During Aging

Music training is associated with a wide range of changes in brain function and structure. Recent studies have shown that an early onset of music training results in more brain changes, indicating that there may be a sensitive period for music training, or an age where the brain is especially responsive. On the other hand, in terms of brain plasticity and positive effects of music training, it is never too late! Any age is the perfect age for starting a musical hobby, and studies show that during aging, music training could be a good way to combat cognitive decline.

It’s an uncomfortable thought for some, but normal aging is associated with a variety of cognitive effects. In addition to cognitive slowing, functions like working memory capacity, attention control processes and episodic memory have all been found to decline with age. The good news is that there are a number of activities one can engage in to protect cognition, such as physical exercise and specific cognitive training programs.

In addition to these, music training is beginning to show great promise as an activity that protects individuals from certain types of cognitive changes associated with aging. For instance, researchers have found that older, musically trained individuals have better abilities to perceive speech in noise than musically non-trained individuals. The ability to perceive speech in noise typically declines with age, and makes, for example, following conversation in noisy social situations, such as parties, difficult. In the study, speech-in-noise perception was investigated with behavioral tests where participants were presented with sentences embedded in varying amounts of background noise. Participants were asked to listen to and repeat the sentences aloud. The subjects with musical training repeated sentences more accurately. The musically trained subjects also had better auditory working memory, measured in the study with neuropsychological tests.

Along the same lines, in 2002, researchers found that musicians had more grey matter in Broca’s area (a part of the frontal lobes important for speech) than nonmusicians. Furthermore, this difference in grey matter density was greater when comparing older musicians with nonmusicians. This may imply that grey matter density in this neural region declines with age in nonmusicians, but is maintained in musicians.

These results are correlational, but may support the notion that music training is the source of the differences observed in brain function and structure. It may therefore be, that musicianship protects certain cognitive functions like memory and speech processing, as well as underlying brain structures, from the effects of typical aging. But what if you’ve played a musical instrument at some point in your life, but then stopped? How far-reaching can the effects of music training be?

In a study researchers found that childhood music lessons were associated with less age-related decline in the neural mechanisms that enable processing of the speed of speech in noise - the same skill that was enhanced in older musicians in the behavioral study cited above. In this study, the participants were 55–76 year olds who had played an instrument but stopped training, on average, forty years ago. The results therefore point towards very long-lasting effects of music training at the neural level!

Along the same lines, another study found that older individuals with a history of over 10 years of musical training experience performed better in neuropsychological tests assessing memory and control over attention than individuals with only 1-9 years of experience. In summary, it seems that even a relatively small amount of music training may protect from age-related decline of cognitive skills, and you don’t have to be a lifelong musician to experience these effects.

Encouraged by results such as these, and owing to the fact that music-making engages the brain widely, researchers suggest that music-making could be a powerful way to support cognitive functioning throughout life. The special advantages of music-making when compared to other types of cognitive training and rehabilitation probably relate to the social and emotional aspects inherent in music: music evokes emotions, it is intrinsically motivating, it brings people together, and it is a natural part of life. Future longitudinal studies will take us closer to understanding the link between music and cognition, as well as uncover the promise of music in supporting cognitive health during aging.

written by ketki karanam



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