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Older people often have difficulty understanding conversation in a crowd. Like everything else, our hearing deteriorates as we age.
There are physiological reasons for this decline: We lose tiny hair cells that pave the way for sound to reach our brains. We lose needed neurons and chemicals in the inner ear, reducing our capacity to hear.
So how can you help stave off that age-related hearing loss? Try embracing music early in life, research suggests.
"If you spend a lot of your life interacting with sound in an active manner, then your nervous system has made lots of sound-to-meaning connections" that can strengthen your auditory system, says Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University.
Musicians focus extraordinary attention on deciphering low notes from high notes and detecting different tonal qualities. Kraus has studied younger musicians and found that their hearing is far superior to that of their non-musician counterparts.
So Kraus wondered: Could that musical training also help fend off age-related hearing loss? To find out, she assembled a small group of middle-aged musicians and non musicians, aged 45-65. She put both groups through a series of tests measuring their ability to make out and repeat a variety of sentences spoken in noisy background environments.
Turns out, the musicians were 40 percent better than non-musicians at tuning out background noise and hearing the sentences, as Kraus reported in PloS ONE. The musicians were also better able to remember the sentences than the non-musicians — and that made it easier for them to follow a line of conversation. After all, Kraus says, in order to listen to a friend in a noisy restaurant, you need to be able to recall what was said a few seconds ago in order to make sense of what you're hearing right now.
The take-home message: If you're an older musician, don't stop playing. And if you gave it up, it may be time to dust off the old violin.
As for picking up an instrument for the first time in mid-life, there's no evidence yet that it can help maintain hearing. But the world of rodents offers some hope: One recent study found that intense auditory training of older rats resulted in significant improvement in their ability to recognize high-pitched sounds. It also boosted their levels of brain chemicals crucial for hearing.
Of course, rats' ears, though similar to humans, are not the same. More research is needed to find out if old human ears can also be taught new tricks.
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