Music Keeps Aging Ears Agile

If you’ve ever taken your grandparents out to dinner, chances are your conversation has been thwarted by the combination of hearing aids and a lot of background noise. While part of age-related hearing loss comes in the form of a loss of range and frequency, not all of it is. Some of that loss has to do with the degradation of the neural pathways that send the audio signals to your brain.

The synchronization between hearing a sound and your neural pathways firing is nearly instantaneous. In fact, it’s a whole order of magnitude more instantaneous than any other sensory system. But as you grow older, the neural connection slows down and the system steps out of synch. This makes it even more difficult for hearing-impaired people to make out what the hell it is you’re trying to say, especially in the presence of a lot of distractions.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

According to a new paper published out of Northwestern University, having years and years of musical training can stop this neural degradation.

Neuroscientist Nina Kraus brought in 87 normal-hearing, native English-speaking adults. Some were older (46-65), some were younger (18-32), some had a wealth of musical training (at least three days a week since before the age of 9, and the rest did not (less than three years). Kraus had the volunteers watch a closed captioned film while listening to the held sound of “daaaaah”. She measured the response time of the brain to the sound in real-time, and looked at the differences between the groups.

Not surprisingly, the young participants scored very well on the test. However, the older participants who had musical training throughout their life scored just as well as the youngsters, while their tone-deaf peers showed the typical age-related decline. This difference means that the musically trained are better at distinguishing one consonant from another during a conversation.

“These are very interesting and important findings,” said Don Caspary, a nationally known researcher on age-related hearing loss at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. “They support the idea that the brain can be trained to overcome, in part, some age-related hearing loss.”

“The new Northwestern data, with recent animal data from Michael Merzenich and his colleagues at University of California, San Francisco, strongly suggest that intensive training even late in life could improve speech processing in older adults and, as a result, improve their ability to communicate in complex, noisy acoustic environments,” Caspary added.



About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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