ATLANTA — A study conducted by Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist in Emory’s Department of Neurology, and cognitive psychologist Alicia MacKay, PhD, found that older individuals who spent a significant amount of time throughout life playing a musical instrument perform better on some cognitive tests than individuals who did not play an instrument.
The findings were published in the April journal Neuropsychology.
While much research has been done to determine the cognitive benefits of musical activity by children, this is the first study to examine whether those benefits can extend across a lifetime.
“Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging,” said lead researcher Hanna-Pladdy. “Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older.”
The study enrolled 70 individuals age 60-83 who were divided into three groups. The participants either had no musical training, one to nine years of musical study or at least ten years of musical training. All of the participants had similar levels of education and fitness, and didn’t show any evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.
Cognitive performance was measured by testing brain functions that typically decline as the body ages, and more dramatically deteriorate in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The high-level musicians who had studied the longest performed the best on the cognitive tests, followed by the low-level musicians and non-musicians, revealing a trend relating to years of musical practice. The high-level musicians had statistically significant higher scores than the non-musicians on cognitive tests relating to visuospatial memory, naming objects and cognitive flexibility, or the brain’s ability to adapt to new information.
“Based on previous research and our study results, we believe that both the years of musical participation and the age of acquisition are critical,” Hanna-Pladdy says. “There are crucial periods in brain plasticity that enhance learning, which may make it easier to learn a musical instrument before a certain age and thus may have a larger impact on brain development.”
The preliminary study was correlational, meaning that the higher cognitive performance of the musicians couldn’t be conclusively linked to their years of musical study. Hanna-Pladdy, who has conducted additional studies on the subject, says more research is needed to explore that possible link.
The study was conducted with at the University of Kansas Medical Center. At the time of the study, Hanna-Pladdy was an assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Kansas Medical Center and a research faculty member of the Landon Center on Aging. MacKay, also a former research assistant at the University of Kansas Medical Center, is now an assistant professor of psychology at Tulsa Community College.
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