Musical training can help protect the brain from later decay of listening skills, according to a new study out of Canada.

Rotman Research Institute (RRI) investigators showed that older adults who received musical training when they were young were 20 percent faster than others at recognizing speech sounds.

The central auditory system in the brain processes and identifies features of speech, and this area can degenerate in seniors. This can make it harder for older adults to understand conversation, even without any loss of hearing.

The effect was noted in adults who began musical training at the age of 14 or younger, and who continued that learning for up to a decade.

"Musical activities are an engaging form of cognitive brain training and we are now seeing robust evidence of brain plasticity from musical training not just in younger brains, but in older brains too," Gavin Bidelman from the University of Memphis said.

Electroencephalography (EEG) was used by investigators to record electrical activity in brains of both musicians and those without musical training. Researchers found the brains of seniors who were trained as musicians when they were young were two to three times better at distinguishing sounds of speech than non-musical peers.

Investigators studied 20 healthy adults, aged between 55 and 75 years old. Half of the participants were trained as musicians when they were children, while 10 did not receive such instruction. Speech sounds, both single and double letter combinations, were played for the subjects, who were asked to identify what they were hearing.

Young people who took part in musical training were also more likely than their non-musical peers at recognizing speech sounds, according to earlier research.

This new study lends evidence to the idea that musical training not only improves brain power in students, but that those benefits can extend to later life, when the brain functioning can start to decline.

Playing music and singing have both been shown to relieve stress that otherwise can often lead to serious health problems, especially among seniors. An earlier study, conducted at the University of Kansas Medical Center, showed musicians are better than non-musical peers at a wide range of cognitive tasks.

"Research shows that making music can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce stress, and lessen anxiety and depression. There is also increasing evidence that making music enhances the immunological response, which enables us to fight viruses," Suzanne Hanser from the music therapy department at Berklee College of Music, said.

Study of the role of early musical training on speech identification later in life was detailed in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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