Age-related hearing loss may seem inevitable, but scientists are learning more about how habits earlier in life may affect hearing as we age.

Last year, PLoS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, online publication, published an article by researchers at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. The study concluded that consistent with performance in young adults, older musicians demonstrated enhanced speech-in-noise perception relative to non-musicians along with greater auditory, but not visual, working memory capacity. By demonstrating that speech-in-noise perception and related cognitive function are enhanced in older musicians, our results imply that musical training may reduce the impact of age-related auditory decline.

In other words, people who are trained in music during their youth were better than non-musicians at tuning out background noise and hearing sentences during conversations. The musicians also were better able to remember the sentences than the non-musicians— and that made it easier for them to follow a line of conversation, explains Dr. John Park, a physician with ENT Associates Inc. at St. Luke’s Hospital.

“The take-home message is if you’re an older musician, don’t stop playing. And if you gave it up, it may be time to start playing again,” Park says. “As for learning music for the first time in mid-life, there’s no evidence yet that it can help maintain hearing. But a recent study found that intense auditory training of older rats resulted in improvement in their ability to recognize high-pitched sounds. It also boosted their levels of brain chemicals crucial for hearing—so there may be hope.”

More study is needed before physicians can base treatment strategies on the Northwestern research, however. “The physiological changes that cause hearing loss may still occur despite musical training,” notes Alison Brockmeyer, a clinical audiologist with Washington University Physicians.

The degree to which an individual can make out another’s speech in a noisy environment depends on the physiological ability to hear the spoken tones, along with the cognitive ability to interpret and recall speech. The dynamic is complex, and the ability to understand speech through background noise can vary among people who have the same degree of physiological hearing loss.

“The recent evidence demonstrates that musical training enhances the ability to hear in background noise, despite peripheral hearing loss,” Brockmeyer says. “Early musical training may slow the age-related decline in speech-in-noise performance, but it will not evade hearing loss altogether. In fact, the exposure to loud music over a lifetime can increase the likelihood of hearing loss.”

Nancy McManus, a clinical audiologist and pediatric audiology team leader at the Mercy Audiology and Hearing Aid Center, agrees that noise protection is key to preventing hearing loss later in life. “Noise exposure, whether it’s an impact noise like a gunshot or a steadystate noise like a leaf blower, can cause hearing loss. The more loud noises you’re exposed to, the more your ears will not recover from them, and the result is damage to the inner ear or hearing loss,” she says. “Your overall health can affect your hearing, too, so taking care of your body can help your hearing.”

Young musicians take note: your practice now may help you hear better later in life, but too many rock concerts won’t do your ears any favors.