Age-related lag in neural timing are avoidable and can be forestalled or offset with musical training, suggest researchers.
The study from the Northwestern University is the first to provide biological evidence that lifelong musical experience has an impact on the aging process.
Measuring the automatic brain responses of younger and older musicians and non-musicians to speech sounds, researchers in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory discovered that older musicians had a distinct neural timing advantage.
"This reinforces the idea that how we actively experience sound over the course of our lives has a profound effect on how our nervous system functions," she explained.
Don Caspary, a nationally known researcher on age-related hearing loss at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine said, "These are very interesting and important findings. 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.
Previous studies from Kraus' Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory suggest that musical training also offset losses in memory and difficulties hearing speech in noise-two common complaints of older adults.
The lab has been extensively studying the effects of musical experience on brain plasticity across the life span in normal and clinical populations, and in educational settings.
However, Kraus warns that the current study's findings were not pervasive and do not demonstrate that musician's have a neural timing advantage in every neural response to sound.
"Instead, this study showed that musical experience selectively affected the timing of sound elements that are important in distinguishing one consonant from another," she said.
The study was published online in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.