A history of music training may mitigate age-related hearing troubles

THE QUESTION Do lifelong musicians face the same hearing problems that other people do as they age?

THIS STUDY involved 163 adults, including 74 characterized as lifelong musicians because they started music training by age 16, had at least six years of formal lessons on a musical instrument and were continuing to practice at the time the study began. The group included both amateurs and professionals, who played a variety of instruments. All participants took a series of hearing tests that checked such things as the ability to detect sounds that grew increasingly quiet, to detect short gaps in otherwise continuous sound, to hear sound variations in a noisy environment and to distinguish words in the presence of background noise. Little difference was found between the groups in hearing diminishing sounds. But in all other auditory tests, musicians processed sound better than non-musicians, with the gap widening with age. For instance, a 70-year-old musician understood speech in a noisy environment as well as a 50-year-old non-musician. Among the musicians, the more they practiced, the better they scored on the hearing tests.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Anyone who wants to stave off hearing loss. With age, hearing tends to dim overall, and many people have trouble hearing certain sounds and following conversations in a noisy place, such as a restaurant. This affects about a third of people by age 60, and nearly half by age 75.

CAVEATS Factors other than musical training may have contributed to the results. The authors noted that people may have become long-term musicians in part because of “inborn characteristics that endow them with enhanced auditory processing abilities.”

FIND THIS STUDY Sept. 13 online issue of Psychology and Aging.

LEARN MORE ABOUT hearing loss at www.nihseniorhealth.
and www.medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare (click “Patient Education Materials,” then search for hearing loss).

Linda Searing

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.