Toronto — A study led by Canadian researchers has found the first evidence that lifelong musicians experience less age-related hearing problems than non-musicians.

While hearing studies have already shown that trained musicians have highly developed auditory abilities compared to non-musicians, this is the first study to examine hearing abilities in musicians and non-musicians across a broad age range, from 18 to 91.

Investigators wanted to determine if lifelong musicianship protects against normal hearing decline in later years, specifically for central auditory processing associated with understanding speech.

“What we found was that being a musician may contribute to better hearing in old age by delaying some of the age-related changes in central auditory processing. This advantage widened considerably for musicians as they got older when compared to similar-aged non-musicians,” said lead investigator Benjamin Rich Zendel at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.

In the study, 74 musicians (ages 19-91) and 89 non-musicians (ages 18-86) participated in a series of auditory assessments. A musician was defined as someone who started musical training by the age of 16, continued practicing music until the day of testing, and had an equivalent of at least 6 years of formal music lessons. Non-musicians in the study did not play any musical instrument.

Participants completed four auditory tasks that assessed pure tone thresholds, gap detection, mistuned harmonic detection, and speech-in-noise,

The scientists found that being a musician did not offer any advantage in the pure tone thresholds test, across the age span. However, for mistuned harmonic detection, gap detection, and speech-in-noise, the musicians showed a clear advantage over non-musicians,

Moreover, the advantage gap widened as both groups got older. By age 70, the average musician was able to understand speech in a noisy environment as well as an average 50-year-old non-musician, suggesting that lifelong musicianship can delay this age-related decline by 20 years.

Most importantly, the three assessments where musicians demonstrated an advantage all rely on auditory processing in the brain, while pure tone thresholds do not. This suggests that lifelong musicianship mitigates age-related changes in the brains of musicians, which is probably due to musicians using their auditory systems at a high level on a regular basis. In other words, “use it or lose it."

Zendel, who recently accepted a new position at the Université de Montréal, expects to have a follow-up study published within the next year that examines differences in brain function of older and younger musicians and non-musicians.

The study, "Musicians experience less age-related decline in central auditory processing," was published in September 2011 in the journal Psychology and Aging.

Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute