TUESDAY, Nov. 5, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Older adults who took music lessons during childhood seem to have a faster brain response to speech than those who never played an instrument, according to the results of a new, small study.
The findings suggest that musical training early in life has a long-term, beneficial effect on how the brain processes sound.
"This study suggests the importance of music education for children today and for healthy aging decades from now," said study author Nina Kraus, of Northwestern University.
The study included 44 adults, aged 55 to 76, who listened to a recorded speech sound while the researchers measured electrical activity in the auditory brainstem, the region of the brain that processes sound.
The more years that a person spent playing instruments during childhood, the faster their brains responded to the speech sound, according to the findings, published in the Nov. 6 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
"The fact that musical training in childhood affected the timing of the response to speech in older adults in our study is especially telling because neural timing is the first to go in the aging adult," Kraus added in a journal news release.
The researchers noted that the people in the musical training group had not picked up an instrument in nearly 40 years.
As people age, they often undergo brain changes that affect hearing. For example, the brains of older adults have a slower response to fast-changing sounds, which is important for interpreting speech, Kraus explained.
The study participants with four to 14 years of music training had the fastest response to the speech sound, about a millisecond faster than those without music training.
"Being a millisecond faster may not seem like much, but the brain is very sensitive to timing and a millisecond compounded over millions of neurons can make a real difference in the lives of older adults," Michael Kilgard, who studies how the brain processes sound at the University of Texas at Dallas and was not involved in this study, said in the news release.
"These findings confirm that the investments that we make in our brains early in life continue to pay dividends years later," he added.
The study uncovered a link between playing a musical instrument when young and brain health in later life. It did not prove cause-and-effect.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about hearing loss.