And the GRAMMY Foundation research award goes to…

Described as the “cocktail-party problem”, aging adults often have difficulty following a conversation when in the presence of background noise.

The foundation for the world’s hottest music awards has honoured a young researcher at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI), and his co-principal investigators, with a prestigious GRAMMY Foundation® grant.

The grant, valued at $17,250 U.S., was awarded to Dr. Gavin Bidelman, who studies the impact of musical training on the brain, along with collaborators, Baycrest senior scientists Drs. Claude Alain and Sylvain Moreno. It will support a research project to investigate the potential benefits of music on listening and speech understanding during the aging process.

Decline in speech understanding can lead to social isolation, depression and frustration in the elderly. These deficits sometimes exist even without hearing loss. This would suggest that other brain processes may play a role in perceiving and understanding speech in older adults.

“Music may help slow aspects of the aging process by counteracting the negative declines in speech understanding that arise with age,” says Dr. Bidelman. “Using state of the art neuroimaging technology, we will examine how musical training sharpens coordination in certain areas of the brain which are engaged during speech listening.”

Study shows life-long musicians have better hearing

Dr. Bidelman’s study will build on previous research conducted at Baycrest that suggests that life-long musicians have improved hearing abilities, including those important for everyday listening.

The study, which was published in the journal Psychology and Aging (in September 2011), found that life-long musicians experience far fewer age-related hearing problems compared to non-musicians.

Hearing problems are common in the elderly, who often report having difficulty following a conversation when in the presence of background noise. Scientists describe this as the “cocktail-party problem.” This is partially due to an age-related decrease in the ability to detect and separate acoustic information from competing sounds in the environment.

“What we found was that being a musician may contribute to better hearing in old age by delaying some of the age-related changes related to understanding speech,” explained lead investigator Dr. Benjamin Zendel, who conducted the study while working on a PhD at the Rotman Research Institute under the supervision of Rotman senior scientist Dr. Claude Alain. “This advantage widened considerably for musicians as they got older.”

This is good news for those who have been playing a musical instrument since their teenage years. It means they should have less trouble following a conversation in a noisy restaurant when in their seventies, according to the findings of the study.

By age 70, the average musician in the study was able to understand speech in a noisy environment as well as an average 50-year-old non-musician, suggesting that lifelong musicianship can delay this age-related decline by 20 years.

The GRAMMY Foundation works in partnership with its founder The Recording Academy® to bring national attention to important issues such as the value and impact of music and arts education.

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