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When older, musicians have a better auditory memory and are more able to hear and converse in a noisy environment

Listening to music can improve the ability to learn and communicate, helps to be in a good mood and even relieves chronic pain. But not all the benefits of music are obtained by the ear. Until now, it was known that learning to play an instrument brings positive aspects to children and adults, but it has been shown that it can help to discern sounds in old age. Music in old age helps overcome depression or distress and, along with dancing, improve balance and avoid the risk of falls.

Music training can benefit the elderly and offset some of the effects of aging deterioration, according to a study conducted at North-western University in the US and published in the journal “PLoS One.” The deterioration of the most important age-related functions-auditory memory and the ability to hear and hold a conversation in a noisy environment-seems to slow down in people who have spent their lives playing an instrument.

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Brain activating music

In all likelihood, according to the authors, the reason for this benefit is that the musical tones activate the nervous system, which creates a kind of file that remains open with each sound heard, in addition to stimulating the different parts of the brain that intervene in the activity. These zones are “trained” and allow to delay the deficits related to old age.

If this hypothesis is true, the conclusions of this study should not be limited to music training. Any repetitive activity that trains the brain for years would help to acquire the maximum benefits, beyond the practice itself. The activities related to language are a good example: when reaching old age, trained people understand better what they read (reading comprehension), they have greater facility for written comprehension (writing with coherence, adequate punctuation, well-structured texts …) and have a better expression when explaining (argumentation and lexical wealth).

The difficulty in discerning sounds among noise is one of the most common complaints of older adults. The most serious consequence of this hearing loss related to age is social isolation and even depressive states. According to the Northwestern University study, neuronal improvements related to hearing in musicians not only consist of functioning as volume amplifiers but are associated with a greater capacity to play with sound through instruments, harmonies and rhythms.

Improvement of brain activity

The musical experience provides mental acuity related to spatial visual memory and the ability of the brain to adapt to new information.

In the “Guide to Depression and Anxiety” of the Spanish Society of Gerontology and Geriatrics, music stands out as part of a novel treatment for both disorders in the elderly. It is called reminiscence therapy and is characterized by the return and expression of memories of past experiences, especially if they were significant, both positive and painful. The reminiscence is achieved with the intervention of facilitators, among which are music, objects, photographs or old newspapers.

Music can evoke so many memories of the past because the region of the brain where they are stored and retrieved serves as the junction between them, music and memory. This discovery was possible thanks to researchers from the University of California (USA), who explained the reason why music provokes intense responses in Alzheimer’s patients.

The results of the Northwestern study agree, to some extent, with other recent work carried out by scientists at the University of Kansas. According to their findings, published in “Neuropsychology”, people with a greater musical experience acquire more mental acuity related to spatial visual memory, with naming objects and the ability of the brain to adapt to new information (cognitive flexibility).

In this case, the researchers addressed the cause of this benefit to the fact that, since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, alternative connections may be created in the brain, which could be compensated for cognitive declines as they get older.

Neural connections

Many studies had revealed the benefits of music and playing an instrument in children: improvement of language skills, memory, behaviour or spatial intelligence. All encompassed in the concept of plasticity, which is the term that scientists use to describe the ability of the brain to adapt and change as a result of training and experience throughout a person’s life. Research suggests that this adaptation during music training also prepares the brain for other aspects of long-term human communication.

But music not only improves neuroplasticity, but also allows the nervous system to provide the ability to assimilate and internalize important patterns for learning. Playing an instrument prepares the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex process, such as reading, remembering a score or coordinating with other musicians. For this reason, many works conclude that children who learn to play an instrument have a better vocabulary and reading ability than their counterparts without musical training.

The importance of music in older people

Dependent individuals who need home care performed by caregivers and caregivers can try singing. Playing an instrument or dancing can also favour and improve their quality of life.

 

The musical rhythm favours both the psychological and physiological aspects and decreases the risk factors that can be dangerous for health. In addition, it brings advantages by helping to regulate body posture and breathing and improving the body’s flexibility.

The fact of learning new things throughout life makes people feel much happier, useful and happy. The intensive musical training is advisable for those individuals with memory problems, obtaining thanks to pleasant melodies an increase of the neuronal rhythm.

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