Musicians’ Brains Stay Sharp as They Age

Summary
While it is known that practicing music repeatedly changes the organization of the brain, it is not clear if these changes can correlate musical abilities with non-musical abilities. The study of 70 older participants, with different musical experience over their lifetimes, provides a connection between musical activity and mental balance in old age. “The results of this preliminary study revealed that participants with at least 10 years of musical experience (high activity musicians) had better performance in nonverbal memory, naming, and executive processes in advanced age relative to non-musicians.”

Introduction
Changing one’s lifestyle may postpone the onset of problems connected with old age, like Alzheimer’s disease. These diseases cause cognitive changes like loss of memory, reasoning, and perception. Adequate rest and physical exercise as well as a lifelong habit of stimulating the mind are favorable for clear thinking in old age. Musical activities, undertaken throughout the lifetime, have an impact on one’s mental health during old age. This has been studied in this current research work. Practicing music for a number of years brings about certain changes in brain organization. Comparing the lucidity in old age of those pursued music related activities and those who didn’t may help to understand the effect of the music-related reorganization of brain on successful aging.
Methods
* Seventy healthy participants, aged between 60 and 83, were divided into three groups, based on their degree of involvement in musical activities, over their lifetimes.
* The three groups were similar in average age, education, handedness, sex ratio, and physical exercise habits.
* The first group, namely the non-musicians, never received any formal musical training. The second group, the low activity musicians, had one to nine years of training. The third, the high activity musicians, trained for more than 10 years and played regularly afterward.
* All were tested for brain strengths such as memory, attention, and language prowess, using standardized tests. Their mastery on the use of language, ability to remember, and ability to express oneself were tested.

Results
* Verbal intellectual ability and learning, as well as recall of verbal information, were found to be similar across the three groups.
* The high activity musicians were significantly better at performing tasks based on visual inputs.
* Although language prowess seemed to be similar across the groups, the high activity musicians’ memory for words was significantly better than that of non-musicians.
* The age at which musical training started affected visual memory, while the number of years of training affected non-verbal memory.

Shortcomings/Next steps
High activity musicians have a better chance of retaining certain mental abilities in old age; however, preexisting factors that may affect their choices have not been considered in this study. Social influences like motivation should be considered in future studies. Effects of musical training on verbal memory need to be analyzed further, by considering changes in brain organization that set in with age. A study on whether the effects of music are generalized or whether they affect only specific parts of the brain could also be undertaken.

Conclusion
Engaging in musical activity for most of one’s lifetime significantly helps remember names, and enhances nonverbal memory, the ability to work based on what one sees, and mental agility during old age. The habit of physical exercise, in addition to musical involvement, further adds to mental lucidity in old age. Starting musical training early and continuing it for several years have a favorable effect on metal abilities during old age. Musical training also seems to enhance verbal prowess and the general IQ of a person, although it is possible that people with higher IQ tend to pursue music more seriously. It is advisable to think about our lifestyles and change them accordingly to have a better chance at a healthy, clear-headed old age.

For More Information:
The Relation between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging
Neuropsychology, April 2011
By Brenda Hanna-Pladdy; Alicia MacKay
From the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.



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