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Musicians less likely to go deaf with age

13th September 2011

Researchers in Canada have found that people who play a musical instrument are better protected against hearing loss.

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Lifelong musicians have better hearing, according to the study, published in the journal Psychology and Ageing.

The research team performed hearing tests on 74 adult musicians, comparing them with a group of 89 non-musicians.

The musicians were found to preserve a better level of hearing sensitivity well into old age. The hearing of one 70-year-old musician was found to be on a par with that of a 50-year-old who did not play an instrument.

However, hearing loss experts warned that everyone, musicians included, should take steps to make sure their hearing was not damanged in the first place.

The study has borne out the results of earlier studies, which also found that musicians have better hearing that non-musicians.

Up to a third of people have experienced moderate hearing loss by the time they reach 60, while 60% will have hearing loss by the age of 80.

Ageing has an impact on the central auditory processing system, which helps filter out extraneous or background sounds, known as the "cocktail party problem."

The researchers from Toronto's Rotman Research Institute also studied subjects ranging from 18 to 91 to see how people were affected as they aged.

The musicians were selected for a history of formal music lessons, for playing since the age of 16, and for continuing to practise. No distinction was made between professional and amateur musicians, however.

The 89 non-musicians had never played an instrument.

The study showed that the musicians were noticeably better at picking out speech against noise.

In conclusion, they speculated that the lifelong practise of music slows or impairs age-related brain changes.

This could be because musicians typically use their hearing ability at a high level regularly.

Co-author Benjamin Zendel said the advantage enjoyed by musicians became more marked with age, rather than less.

Experts at the group Action on Hearing Loss said it was better to encourage everyone to minimise damage to their hearing, however.

Ralph Holme, head of biomedical research for the group, said the group had campaigned for musicians to take steps to protect their hearing, as well as people who listen to loud music.

Holme said earplugs minimised the risk of permanent damage to hearing.


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