Those childhood music lessons could pay off decades later, even for those who no longer play an instrument, by keeping the mind sharper as people age, according to a preliminary study published by the American Psychological Association.
The study recruited 70 healthy adults age 60 to 83 who were divided into groups based on their levels of musical experience. The musicians performed better on several cognitive tests than individuals who had never studied an instrument or learned how to read music. The research findings were published online in the APA journal Neuropsychology.
“Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging,” said lead researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD. “Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older.”
None of the participants with musical training showed any evidence of Alzheimer’s disease but the high-level musicians who had studied the longest performed the best on the cognitive tests.
The brain functions measured by the tests typically decline as the body ages and more dramatically deteriorate in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. The results “suggest a strong predictive effect of high musical activity throughout the lifespan on preserved cognitive functioning in advanced age,” the study stated.
“Based on previous research and our study results, we believe that both the years of musical participation and the age of acquisition are critical,” Hanna-Pladdy says. “There are crucial periods in brain plasticity that enhance learning, which may make it easier to learn a musical instrument before a certain age and thus may have a larger impact on brain development.”
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(excerpt, American Psychological Association, April 2011)