We’re all growing old – for all the recent advances in science and all the predictions of science fiction, this is still an inescapable fact. By 2050, there will be roughly 89 million older adults in the US, twice as many as there are now. While old age chases most of us down if we’re lucky, that doesn’t mean we’re entirely powerless in the process.
Previous entries in my blog looked at various ways to promote healthy aging: walking and lifting weights, eating less, learning languages. Some of these lifestyle changes, like exercise, are easy to incorporate later in life, while others, like bilingualism, may depend on the environment you grew up in. Today’s new finding about healthy aging fits in the latter category. It's a bit like a lottery: were you one of the lucky ones who benefited from an anti-aging activity in your youth?
Researchers were interested in how the brain responds to sound. We already know that brain structures that lie at the base of your brain, called subcortical structures (sub > beneath, cortical > the outer layer of your brain) are important for detecting fast-changing sounds like the ones we make when we talk. The precise timing of your brain reacting to sounds degrades as you get older, and scientists believe this is why grandma sometimes doesn’t really follow what you’re saying.
In this study, the researchers measured the precision of this timing by putting electrodes on participants’ heads (the outside only!) and recording the signals their brains generated when they heard the syllable “da”. As expected, the older participants didn’t have as precise a timing as younger ones. More interestingly, however, was that this age-related decline wasn’t nearly as bad in participants who were musicians.
So the take-home message is that lifelong musical experience can help make your brain better equipped to deal with aging. No doubt it also comes with other benefits - my grandma, in her eighties, had forgotten much of her adult years but still delighted fellow residents of her care home with her flawless rendition of the "Sweet bye and bye". Now of course while this is an interesting article, the results don't come as a huge surprise – by now you probably have figured out that the whole “use if or lose it” saying has a lot of truth to it.
Conveniently, I just bought a piano. Now if only I could reap all the benefits just by looking at it…
Reference: Musical experience offsets age-related delays in neural timing (2012) Parbery-Clark A, Anderson S, Hittner E, Kraus N. Neurobiology of Aging 33:1483.e1-1483.e4.