Musicians Avoid Age-Related Hearing Loss

Research findings published in the medical journal Psychology and Aging has made an interesting observation regarding age-related hearing loss. It has been found that people who have played a musical instrument throughout their lives are less likely to develop a condition dubbed the “cocktail party problem” – that of being unable to filter out background noise sufficiently to be able to effectively participate in a conversation. This is very often the first symptom of age-related hearing loss, making social occasions awkward and stressful.

Research undertaken at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, affiliated with the University of Toronto, revealed that as people age they may have increasing difficulty isolating the sounds they want to hear, and ignoring the sounds they don’t. In a research project run by the institute they monitored 89 non-musicians ranging in age from 18 to 86 years old, as well as 74 musicians between the ages of 19 and 91, to see what, if any, differences there may be in hearing ability. The group of musicians had all started playing an instrument before the age of 16, and had continued to do so throughout their lives. Both groups were given a standard hearing test, as well as being assessed for their ability to identify different sounds. In the hearing test there proved to be no significant difference between the groups. However, when it came to the other three tests it was noted that musicians had an advantage over other participants in that they could identify sounds and had the ability to filter out background noise to hear and understand speech. In layman’s terms this means that a 70 year old musician is likely to be able to follow a conversation in a crowd, better than a 50 year old non-musician would.

Reasons given for this difference include the fact that musicians are required to make use of fine-tuned auditory skills on a regular basis. One of the researchers on the project, Dr. Benjamin Zendel, noted that, as is the case with many of our abilities, it is a case of “use it or lose it”. He also noted that whether playing in a rock band or a symphony, musicians are required to listen to what everyone else is doing, in order to keep in time with them. He did emphasize, however, that prolonged exposure to loud music can be very damaging to anyone’s hearing.