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Music making may help keep mind in tune in old age

April 11, 2011
Special to World Science  

Long­time play­ing of a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment may help keep your mind sharp as old age sets in, a study has found.

Re­search­ers Bren­da Hanna-Pladdy and Ali­cia Mac­Kay at the Un­ivers­ity of Kan­sas Med­i­cal Cen­ter sur­veyed 70 healthy peo­ple aged 60 to 83, giv­ing them a series of neu­ropsy­cho­logical tests.

Those with at least 10 years of mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence had “bet­ter per­for­mance in non­ver­bal mem­o­ry… and ex­ec­u­tive pro­cess­es” com­pared to non-mu­si­cians, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors wrote. Their find­ings, which they de­scribe as pre­lim­i­nary, are pub­lished in the April 4 ad­vance on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Neu­ro­psy­chol­ogy.

The re­sults, they added, “sug­gest a strong pre­dic­tive ef­fect of high mu­si­cal ac­ti­vity through­out the life span on pre­served cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing in ad­vanced age.”

If the find­ings are con­firmed, music-making may join phys­ical fitness, strong edu­cation and pro­fes­sional car­eers as fac­tors found to con­tri­bute to high­er ment­al test scores in old age.

It has al­ready been known that “in­ten­sive re­pet­i­tive mu­si­cal prac­tice can lead to bi­lat­er­al cor­ti­cal re­or­gan­iz­a­tion,” or wide­spread changes in brain wir­ing, Hanna-Pladdy and Mac­Kay wrote. But it has been un­clear, they added, wheth­er mu­si­cal abil­i­ties “trans­fer to nonmu­si­cal cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties” through­out life. 

The peo­ple in the sur­vey group were matched on age, educa­t­ion, his­to­ry of phys­i­cal ex­er­cise; mu­si­cians were matched on age of in­stru­mental ac­qui­si­tion and years of for­mal mu­si­cal train­ing, the sci­en­tists not­ed.


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Longtime playing of a musical instrument may help keep your mind sharp as old age sets in, a study has found. Researchers Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Alicia MacKay at the University of Kansas Medical Center surveyed 70 healthy people aged 60 to 83, putting them through an array of neuropsychological tests. The subjects with at least 10 years of musical experience had “better performance in nonverbal memory… and executive processes” compared to non-musicians, the investigators found. The results, which they describe as preliminary, are published in the April 4 advance online issue of the research journal Neuropsychology. It was already known that “intensive repetitive musical practice can lead to bilateral cortical reorganization,” or a widespread change in brain wiring, Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay wrote. But it has been unclear, they added, whether musical abilities “transfer to nonmusical cognitive abilities” throughout life. The people in the survey group were matched on age, education, history of physical exercise, while musicians were matched on age of instrumental acquisition and formal years of musical training, the scientists noted. The results, they added, “suggest a strong predictive effect of high musical activity throughout the life span on preserved cognitive functioning in advanced age.”