The Ultimate Brain Exercise

If you’re looking for mental exercises to help your brain stay young and sharp, various companies offer a wide range of brain activities that are supposed to help — all for a price, of course. But some researchers think they’ve discovered what may be the ultimate brain exercise. And it’s both fun and easy.

Music is a great brain-boosting activity. Scientists have now shown that musical training can not only help young students do better in the classroom but may aid aging brains to defend themselves against the ups and downs of aging.

“Lifelong musical training appears to confer advantages in at least two important functions known to decline with age — memory and the ability to hear speech in noise,” says researcher Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University.

A study by Kraus and others at Northwestern found that folks aged 45 to 65 who were trained in music had a better auditory memory and could more easily understand what people were saying in noisy rooms.1

“Difficulty hearing speech in noise is among the most common complaints of older adults, but age-related hearing loss only partially accounts for this impediment that can lead to social isolation and depression,” says Kraus. “It’s well known that adults with virtually the same hearing profile can differ dramatically in their ability to hear speech in noise.”

The researchers discovered that people who have played music all their lives are especially acute in remembering things they have heard and their brains process sounds more efficiently.

It’s Never Too Late

But you don’t have to be a lifelong musician to benefit from music lessons. Other research at Northwestern demonstrates that no matter how old you are, having some training and paying more attention to the nuances of music can help your brain.

“These are very interesting and important findings,” says Don Caspary, a researcher on age-related hearing loss at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. “They support the idea that the brain can be trained to overcome, in part, some age-related hearing loss. The new Northwestern data, with recent animal data… strongly suggest that intensive training even late in life could improve speech processing in older adults and, as a result, improve their ability to communicate in complex, noisy acoustic environments.”

Brain Training

According to Laurel Trainer, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind at McMaster University in West Hamilton, Ontario, it’s important to note that music training (learning to sing or play an instrument) has more valuable benefits than merely listening to music.

Her research has found that even a year or two of music training enhances memory, attention and executive control in the brain.2

“We therefore hypothesize that musical training (but not necessarily passive listening to music) affects attention and memory, which provides a mechanism whereby musical training might lead to better learning across a number of domains,” says Trainor. The reason for this, she believes, is that the motor and listening skills needed to play an instrument, especially in an ensemble with other people, requires attention, memory, and the ability to control your actions. Merely listening passively to music (the “Mozart effect”) does not produce the same changes in attention and memory.

So move the knickknacks off the piano or get out your guitar that’s been gathering dust in the closet for years and start playing. If you’ve never played any instrument, you can buy a cheap electronic keyboard and start experimenting. Learning music from scratch may be challenging, but that kind of challenge helps your brain’s neurons stay young.