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Musicians Remember Better

NSF Award:

Musical Experience in Older Adults: Impact on Hearing Speech in Noise  (Northwestern University)

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Aging disrupts the brain's ability to respond quickly to sounds like speech. Such disruptions impair the nervous system's ability to precisely encode speech. This neural deterioration is observed alongside age-related impairments in cognitive and communication abilities such as memory and hearing speech in noisy backgrounds.

However, researchers at Northwestern University have found that older adult musicians have better memories, are better at listening to speech in noisy backgrounds, and process speech faster than older non-musicians. 

The Northwestern research indicates that musical training has long-lasting effects on the nervous system. Such training appears to slow age-related deterioration of the brain's response to sound and to limit disruption of cognitive and communication abilities.

Musical training over a life span may refine neural timing mechanisms and protect against the negative effects of aging. This brain benefit may underlie older musicians' enhanced memory and speech perception, compared with non-musicians in the same age group.

Compelling evidence from past research suggests that musical training stimulates prowess in cognitive abilities. For example, the length of musical training in children (even when the music lessons are not at all the choice of the child) is predictive of vocabulary knowledge and non-verbal reasoning skills; IQ measures are correlated with duration of music lessons in children; auditory discrimination and fine motor skills increase after even one year of musical training; and additional benefits are seen after three years of training.

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  • cartoon of subject listening to speech in noise during monitoring of brain activity
Subject listens to speech during monitoring of brain activity.
Nina Kraus, Northwestern University

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