Childhood music study may offer brain lifelong boost
Published Thursday, April 21, 2011 11:03AM EDT
Those endless hours of scales, triads and minuets can sometimes get dull, but there could be long-term benefits to music lessons. A new study suggests learning a musical instrument as a child could keep you sharp into old age.
In the small, preliminary study published by the American Psychological Association, seniors who had had music lessons as kids did better on congnitve tests than others. And the longer they had played music for, the better they did.
The study recruited 70 healthy adults age 60 to 83 and then divided them into three groups, based on their levels of musical experience: no musical training; one to nine years of music lessons; or at least 10 years of musical training. Most of those with a musical background had played the piano.
All of the participants had similar levels of education and fitness and didn't show any evidence of Alzheimer's disease.
When the seniors were asked to perform several cognitive tests, those who had studied music the longest performed the best, followed by the low-level musicians and then the non-musicians.
The most experienced musicians had higher scores on cognitive tests relating to visuospatial memory, naming objects, and "cognitive flexibility," which tests the brain's ability to adapt to new information.
Half of those in the most musically experienced group still played an instrument at the time of the study. But, interestingly, they didn't perform any better on the tests than the other advanced musicians who had stopped playing years earlier.
Lead researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, a clinical neuropsychologist, said she believes that musical activity throughout life might act as a form of cognitive exercise and might make the brain more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging.
"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," she said in a statement.
She added that based on previous research, she believes learning music at a young age is important for reaping its brain benefits.
"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," she said.
While plenty of research has been done on the cognitive benefits of music lessons on children, Hanna-Pladdy thinks this is the first study to examine whether those benefits can extend across a lifetime.
The findings are published online in the American Psychological Association journal Neuropsychology.