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Can music slow down the aging process?

The long-term benefits of musical practice continue through life

The hours of rehearsal (amid the melodramatic interludes) of the high school students on Fox's hit series, "Glee," may be paying off for them as they eventually graduate and move into their adult lives. High school students around the world are re-thinking their involvement in what, in the past, was seen as one of the least cool routes to high school popularity ("Gleek-ish"?). Inspired by the glamour and stunning performances of the Glee stars, You Tube is blossoming with other contenders for national attention. Other hit shows that feature musical performances, including "American Idol," and "America's Got Talent" (amidst others of that genre), are also stimulating young people and adults to take their Karaoke performances to new heights.

According to two recent studies, the rising popularity of musical activity should help future generations by enabling them to stay mentally sharp throughout their lives. In the first investigation, University of Kansas researchers Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Alicia MacKay compared three groups of 70 healthy older adults ranging from 60 to 83 years old: nonmusicians, low activity musicians (from 1 to 9 years of formal training), and high activity (10 years of playing, including formal training). As you might expect, before comparing the groups, the researchers thought to control for every possible condition of importance, including the obvious ones of intelligence, physical exercise, and education. The results provided clear superiority of the highly active musicians in several areas including spatial (nonverbal) memory, processing speed, and cognitive flexibility. The more the years of practice the individual engaged in, the better the cognitive performance.

The second study focused on auditory memory, the ability to remember what you hear. A team of researchers led by Northwestern University psychologist Alexandra Parbery- Clark compared middle-aged individuals (40-65 years old) who remained musically active throughout their lives with non-musicians of the same age. Although the two groups were the same in their hearing acuity, the musicians were far superior in their auditory memory and in their ability to detect auditory signals amid a noisy background. Unlike the Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay study, these particular groups did not differ in visual memory, but of course, they were younger than the participants in that study.

In this relatively new area of investigation, researchers still have much to sort out about why musical training affects lifelong cognitive abilities. However, the signs are encouraging and suggest that teens and adults who are inspired to get involved in music, whether classical or popular, are giving their brains an important source of future growth and development.

Unfortunately, countering the popularity of TV shows featuring musical performance is the fact that local school budgets are finding it increasingly difficult to fund music education. Families, themselves strapped in these economically difficult times, may have to give up private music lessons to conserve their own budgets.

However, there are many ways that people of all ages can gain access in alternative ways to the benefits of formal musical training. There are literally hundreds of YouTube videos devoted to music training- though they vary in quality, some are excellent. Although buying or even renting some musical instruments can be costly, we're all capable of training our voices, for free. Kids in impoverished nations find steel barrels to drum on, and many community centers, schools, and college campuses have pianos somewhere around for people to play.

Music is one of the most elemental forms of communication, and its relationship to brain functioning is increasingly coming under scientific scrutiny, including the very readable and informative "This is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel Levitan.

Here are some practical tips for enhancing your own neural circuitry by taking advantage of music's benefits:

1. Check out your own community's free courses and other resources. Many towns, though suffering from budget problems, nevertheless provide community outlets for music whether in chorales, amateur theater groups, or inexpensive lessons.

2. Give karaoke a try. Though you may feel intimidated at first, if you find supportive friends and audiences, you can develop an entertaining, if not proficient, karaoke style.

3. Encourage children in your life to try music. If music lessons are something you can afford, don't let your children's complaining get in the way of giving it a chance. If your children are taking lessons now, give them lots of positive encouragement (even if it hurts your ears).

4. Support music education in your community. You may be able to provide help to struggling music groups. Even if you can't play a single note of music, you can help raise funds to keep the local music groups in business.

5. Remember that it's never too late to start. Research shows that even a few years of musical training can build brain power. Many adults start musical lessons for the first time in adulthood, or return to music lessons that they discontinued.

Participation in music has long-term cognitive benefits, but it's also fun and can help brighten your mood. A song in your heart plus a song in your brain may give untold benefits for years to come!

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011