Sunday, February 2, 2014

Your Aging Brain Will Be in Better Shape If You've Taken Music Lessons

Studies are showing that learning to play an instrument can bring significant improvements in your brain.
Are music lessons the way to get smarter?

That's what a lot of parents and experts believe: Studying an instrument gives children an advantage in the development of their intellectual, perceptual, and cognitive skills. This may, however, turn out to be wishful thinking. Two new randomized trials have found no evidence for the belief. The IQs of preschoolers who attended several weeks of music classes as part of these studies did not differ significantly from the IQs of those who had not.

But that does not mean that the advantages of learning to play music are limited to expressing yourself, impressing friends, or just having fun.A growing number of studies show that music lessons in childhood can do something perhaps more valuable for the brain than childhood gains: provide benefits for the long run, as we age, in the form of an added defense against memory loss, cognitive decline, and diminished ability to distinguish consonants and spoken words.

Not only that, you may well get those benefits even if you haven't tickled the ivories, strummed the guitar, or unpacked your instrument from its case in years. And dividends could even be in store if you decide to pick up an instrument for the very first time in mid life or beyond.

The reason is that musical training can have a "profound" and lasting impact on the brain, creating additional neural connections in childhood that can last a lifetime and thus help compensate for cognitive declines later in life, says neuropsychologist Brenda Hanna -Pladdy of Emory University in Atlanta. Those many hours spent learning and practicing specific types of motor control and coordination (each finger on each hand doing something different, and for wind and brass instruments, also using your mouth and breathing), along with the music -reading and listening skills that go into playing an instrument in youth, are all factors contributing to the brain boost that shows up later in life.

Musical Training Grows Your Brain:
You can even map the impact of musical training on the brain: In a 2003 study, Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug found that the brains of adult professional musicians had a larger volume of gray matter than the brains of non musicians had. Schlaug and colleagues also found that after 15 months of musical training in early childhood, structural brain changes associated with motor and auditory improvements begin to appear.

The Longer You Played an Instrument, the Better:
More research is showing this might well be the case. In Hanna -Pladdy's first study on the subject, published in 2011, she divided 70 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 83 into three groups: musicians who had studied an instrument for at least ten years, those who had played between one and nine years, and a control group who had never learned an instrument or how to read music. Then she had each of the subjects take a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests.

The group who had studied for at least ten years scored the highest in such areas as nonverbal and visuo spatial memory, naming objects, and taking in and adapting new information. By contrast, those with no musical training performed least well, and those who had played between one and nine yearswere in the middle.

In other words, the more they had trained and played, the more benefit the participants had gained. But, intriguingly, they didn't lose all of the benefits even when they hadn't played music in decades.

You Can Start Now
It's not too late to gain benefits even if you didn't take up an instrument until later in life. Jennifer Bugos, an assistant professor of music education at the University of South Florida, Tampa, studied the impact of individual piano instruction on adults between the ages of 60 and 85. After six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.

Sure, your friends might laugh when you sit down at the piano, but your brain may well have the last laugh.

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