Good news for people whose parents forced them to play an instrument as children: musical training in youth can help prevent later cognitive decline in some areas. One might assume that the benefits of playing an instrument would only be present in those who continued to play as adults, but research from Nina Kraus, PhD, and her colleagues at Northwestern University has found that musical training had benefits even for people who have not played an instrument in decades.

One of aging’s many hallmarks are slowed responses to sensory input. In particular, older adults exhibit slower responses to fast-changing sounds, which has implications for interpreting speech. Fortunately, some research has shown that age-related cognitive decline is not inevitable. As such, this study asked whether musical training in early life could impact neural responses to sound for older adults.

The study was comprised of 44 health adults aged 55-76 who had not played an instrument in the last 40 years. The participants listened to a synthesized speech syllable while the researchers measured electrical activity in the auditory brainstem (responsible for processing sound and other cognitive information). The results showed that the adults who had four to 14 years of music training in early life had a faster response to the speech sound than their peers.

“This study suggests the importance of music education for children today and for health aging decades from now. The fact that musical training in childhood affected the timing of the response to speech in older adults in our study is especially telling because neural timing is the first thing to go in the aging adult,” stated Kraus.

This research is published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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