While there is a long-established link between hearing loss and dementia, a growing body of research has pointed to the positive connection between music and memory. A number of organizations and institutions, for example, the nonprofit Music & Memory, use this relationship to positively impact seniors suffering from mental health disorders. According to the organization, music is hardwired to long-term memory function within the brain, highlighting the importance of hearing as a cognitive function. Therefore, listening to music can be beneficial for those with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's and other diseases that affect the brain. Today, scientists have developed extensive correlations between dementia and hearing loss and have found that music therapy can play a role in preventing them.
Research and findings
A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University found that musical training for seniors can prevent delays in neural timing associated with age. Presbycusis, more commonly known as age-related hearing loss, affects millions of seniors, and is often thought of as a natural effect of aging. However, such research suggests that at the very least music could play a role in delaying the onset of hearing loss and dementia. While music therapy cannot correct damage caused to hair cells within the ear that are responsible for hearing, this method trains the brain to better communicate, even in noisy atmospheres.
Don Caspary, a nationally respected researcher on age-related hearing loss, explained, "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."
The team measured automatic brain responses caused by speech sounds for musicians and non-musicians of various age groups. In the older participants, researchers found that musicians outperformed non-musicians. Nina Kraus, a Northwestern neuroscientist, stated:
"The older musicians not only outperformed their older non-musician counterparts, they encoded the sound stimuli as quickly and accurately as the younger non-musicians. 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."
The test was given to 87 normal-hearing participants, and musicianship was defined as having started engaging in musical activities before age 9 and having continued with these activities consistently in the following years. Non-musicians had fewer than three years of musical training.
For decades, researchers have been conducting studies to support this notion. The Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory run out of Northwestern University is a major hub for auditory researchers who continue to write a wide range of publications on the topic across a variety of respected auditory journals. The ANL notes that music alters the way sound is processed in the brain and that making music strengthens other functions of speech and communication. For this reason, listening to music and learning to play an instrument can benefit long-term cognitive function.
The lab's ongoing studies examine not only how music therapy relates to memory and auditory function, but also cover the topics of reading, bilingualism, aging and neuro-education.
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