Music Lessons as Child May Keep Aging Minds Sharp

Study Links Childhood Music Lessons With Better Brain Function in Older Adults

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 22, 2011 -- Learning to play a musical instrument as a child may help keep the mind sharp for years after the last note is played.

A new study suggests childhood music lessons may improve brain function and combat the effects of aging on the brain.

Researchers found older adults who took music lessons as a child performed better on memory and brain function tests than those who never learned how to read music or play an instrument.

The benefits of childhood music lessons on brain function were still evident decades later even if they never played music again as adults. But the study suggests the longer the participants played an instrument, the bigger the benefits may be.

"Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging," says researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD, of the University of Kansas Medical Center, in a news release. "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."

Music Lessons Pay Off Years Later

In the study, published in Neuropsychology, researchers divided 70 older adults, ages 60 to 83, into three groups based on their levels of musical experience:

  • Nonmusicians: those who never took music lessons or learned to play an instrument.
  • Low-activity musicians: one to nine years of musical experience and some formal training.
  • High-activity musicians: at least 10 or more years experience on a regular basis and formal training.

All of the participants were tested on various types of cognitive processing, memory, and other brain function skills that typically decline with aging.

Musicians with at least 10 years of musical experience scored significantly better on tests of nonverbal memory, naming, and executive processes such as ability to organize, plan, and manage time, compared with nonmusicians.

For example, musicians were better at naming objects and their brains were better able to adapt to new information (a skill referred to as cognitive flexibility).

Researchers say a greater number of years of musical experience and an earlier age of starting music lessons appeared to have a beneficial effect on brain function, but this link needs more study.

"Based on previous research and our study results, we believe that both the years of musical participation and the age of acquisition are critical," says Hanna-Pladdy. "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."

All of the musicians were amateurs who started music lessons at about about age 10. More than half played the piano, about a quarter played a woodwind instrument, such as the flute or clarinet, and smaller numbers played stringed instruments, percussion, or brass instruments.


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SOURCES: Hanna-Pladdy, B. Neuropsychology, April 22, 2011; vol 25: pp 378-386.News release, American Psychological Association.

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