August 8, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 294 — How musical training impacts cognitive impairment

Adults who have musical training may have the upper hand in the battle against cognitive decline in their later years, according to a recently published study by an IU researcher and his colleagues at the University of Arkansas. The researchers studied older adults who were on the cusp of mild cognitive decline and who had 5 to 10 years of musical training, mostly instrumental, at some point in their lives. IU Professor of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences Gavin Bidelman says most mild cognitive impairment research is focused on symptoms, such as memory loss and attention issues. However, by the time such symptoms are evident, the disease is often too far advanced and could progress to Alzheimer’s disease. If researchers can understand how the brain responds to everyday sounds, like speech, in individuals with mild cognitive impairment, it might be possible to catch the condition early enough to prevent steep declines from happening so quickly, if at all. Bidelman says the researchers looked at declines in speech processing in older adults who showed early signs of cognitive issues. As people got older, the brain encoded speech less precisely. But in people with past musical training, that decline was less steep. This suggests that music engagement might protect against the normal age-related declines in speech processing and cognition. Bidelman says current treatments for mild cognitive impairment are very limited and include only experimental drug therapy and brain-training games, which attempt to stimulate brain function like a muscle. He says one of the benefits of music is that it can be a fun activity with zero side effects. In the future, the researchers hope to obtain additional funding to conduct a larger study about whether musical training can offset the effects of aging. Bidelman says that for music training to be an effective treatment option for people with mild cognitive impairment, its effects must be rapid and long lasting.