Music training may provide lifelong boost in brain functioning

April 21, 2011

Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center have found evidence suggesting that studying a musical instrument, which requires years of practice and learning, may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive decline as we get older.

The study recruited 70 healthy adults age 60 to 83 who were divided into groups based on their levels of musical experience.  The three groups of study participants included individuals with no musical training; with one to nine years of musical study; or with at least 10 years of musical training. All of the participants had similar levels of education and fitness and didn’t show any evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

All of the musicians were amateurs who began playing an instrument at about 10 years of age. More than half played the piano while approximately a quarter had studied woodwind instruments such as the flute or clarinet. Smaller numbers performed with stringed instruments, percussion, or brass instruments.

The high-level musicians who had studied the longest performed the best on cognitive tests, followed by the low-level musicians and non-musicians, revealing a trend relating to years of musical practice. The high-level musicians had statistically significant higher scores than the non-musicians on cognitive tests relating to visuospatial memory, naming objects, and cognitive flexibility (the brain’s ability to adapt to new information).

The brain functions measured by the tests typically decline as the body ages and more dramatically deteriorate in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. The results suggest a “strong predictive effect of high musical activity throughout the lifespan on preserved cognitive functioning in advanced age,” the researchers concluded.

Ref.: Brenda Hanna-Pladdy & Alicia MacKay, The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging, Neuropsychology, April 4, 2011