Lifelong Musicians Hear Better Than the Rest of Us

Posted September 16th, 2011 at 7:30 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Study reveals that older people who were lifelong musicians (left) retain better hearing ability than non-musicians (right) (left photo: Vi Khoa Duong - right photo: Bach Tran)

Study reveals that older lifelong musicians retain better hearing than non-musicians. (left photo: Vi Khoa Duong - right photo: Bach Tran)

Lifelong musicians are less likely to experience age-related hearing problems than non-musicians, according to a new Canadian study.

The National Institutes of Health says one-third of Americans between 65 and 74 has hearing problems, as do half of those who are 85 and older.

Among the hearing problems many older people experience is difficulty understanding speech when there’s a bit of background noise.

According to researchers,  musicians must train themselves to develop sharper auditory skills and abilities because they rely so heavily on hearing and listening to perform their music.

Benjamin Rich Zendel, study lead investigator (Photo: Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute)

Benjamin Rich Zendel, study lead investigator (Photo: Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute)

The study was led by Benjamin Rich Zendel, with senior scientist Dr. Claude Alain at the Baycrest Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.

They examined the hearing abilities of musicians and non-musicians from 18 to 91 years old. The genres of music played by these musicians varied from rock and pop to classical.

One of the study’s goals was to determine if lifelong musicianship protected against normal hearing decline in later years.  Also, it specifically examined the central auditory process that’s associated with understanding speech.

What they found was that the musicians’ hearing advantage  over non-musicians widened as both groups aged.

An average 70-year-old musician was able to decipher speech in a noisy environment as well as the average 50-year-old non-musician.

Phil Collins formerly of Genesis (left) and The Who's Pete Townsend (right) both have suffered hearing loss after years of being exposed to high sound levels while playing their music for fans around the world. (Photos: Townsend, AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser - Collins, AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Phil Collins formerly of Genesis (left) and The Who's Pete Townsend (right) both have suffered hearing loss after years of being exposed to high sound levels while playing their music for fans around the world. (Photos: Townsend, AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser - Collins, AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

The findings suggest being a lifelong musician can delay this age-related decline by 20 years.

But what about the famous rock musicians who played loudly for years and now suffer from hearing loss?  Zendel says the actual physical structure of the ear has been damaged in these cases, limiting its ability to send an auditory signal to the brain.  He points out that his study focuses on hearing ability in the brain and not within the ear itself.

It is once the signal gets to the brain for processing that musicians have a huge advantage over non-musicians, according to the findings.

Zendel recommends that all musicians wear hearing protection.

Zendel, joins us this weekend on the “Science World” radio program to talk about his team’s research and how lifelong musicians were able to maintain better hearing ability than those who weren’t musicians.

>>>> Listen to the interview here…

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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