Our brains are always changing, and the things we choose to do have a lot of influence on how our brains change. Couch potatoes cultivate vegetable brains. Learners and doers develop and enhance their cognitive capacities, even into old age. Many researchers contend that music ranks number 1 when it comes to cognitive enhancement and development--for old and young alike.

It pays to be a lifelong learner. Learning produces structural changes in the brain that buffer the brain against aging's not-so-inevitable declines. "[I]ntensive skills-learning in adulthood can induce structural adaptations that allow the brain to accommodate [to] the demands of the environment," write neuroscientists Catherine Wan and Gottfried Schlaug. .

I visited Schlaug when I was writing Brain Sense. He and his colleague Andrea Norton told me about research studies that have demonstrated changes in both young brains and mature ones as a result of even short-term musical training. For example, I found out that practicing musicians have more gray matter in certain parts of the brain than do nonmusicians--and the difference can be shown to result from training and practice in music.

Furthermore, "musicians appear to be less susceptible to age-related degenerations in the brain, presumably as a result of their daily musical activities," Schlaug says. He reports on a longitudinal study that looked at the effects of specific activities on the development--or avoidance!--of dementia. A 2003 study (Verghese et al, see below) showed that seniors ages 75-80 who frequently played a musical instrument were less likely to develop dementia that those who rarely played. This protective effect of playing music was greater than the benefits derived from other cognitive activities such as reading, writing, or doing crossword puzzles.

Wan and Schlaug report on another study:

The beneficial effects of playing music in old age were examined in an experimental study in which musically naïve elderly participants (aged 60-85 years) were randomly allocated to an experimental group (6 months of intensive piano lessons) or a no-treatment control group (Bugos et al, 2007, see below). The experimental group received a half-hour lesson each week and was required to practice independently for a minimum of 3 hours per week. Following this period of musical training, they showed improvements on tests of working memory, perceptual speed, and motor skills, while the control group did not show such improvements.

Since I wrote Brain Sense, some new studies have come across my desk that show even more benefits of studying and playing music. For example, researchers at Northwestern University recently reported that musical training can help older people retain their hearing abilities. When compared to their nonmusician counterparts, musicians ages 45 to 65 excelled in their ability to hear speech in noisy environments. Auditory memory--or recall of what is heard--proved better, too.

Music training "fine-tunes" the nervous system, says Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern and one of the authors of the study. "Music experience bolsters the elements that combat age-related communication problems," she adds.

For More Information:

Catherine Y. Wan and Gottfried Schlaug, "Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span," Neuroscientist (October 2010): 16(5): 566-577.

Joe Verghese et al., "Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly,"
N Engl J Med (June 19, 2003): 348:2508-2516.

J. A. Bugos et al., "Individualized Piano Instruction Enhances Executive Functioning and Working Memory in Older Adults," Ment Health (July 2007): 11(4):464-71

A. Parbery-Clark, D. L. Strait, S, Anderson, E. Hittner, and N. Kraus, "Musical Experience and the Aging Auditory System: Implications for Cognitive Abilities and Hearing Speech in Noise,"
PLoS One (May 11, 2011): 6(5):e18082.

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