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Want to make sure you catch all the gossip at a noisy cocktail party even as you grow older and your hearing begins to fade? Learn a musical instrument and keep playing it throughout your life.

At least that's the conclusion of a new study that found that life-long musicians experience far fewer age-related hearing problems than their non-musical peers. The lead researcher, Benjamin Zendel, who conducted the study while working on his PhD at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, noted that some hearing loss can be attributed to a natural decline in the physical structures of the ear.

But, he added, hearing can also be compromised because of a decrease in the brain's ability to process auditory information, making it more difficult to distinguish different sounds. In particular, the elderly often have difficulty understanding speech in the presence of background noise, a condition described by scientists as the "cocktail party problem."

For the study, the researchers recruited 74 musicians (both professionals and amateurs) and 89 non-musicians, ranging in age from 18 to 91. They were put through a series of tests, including one in which they were asked to repeat a spoken sentence while the background sound is steadily increased in volume.

The results, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, suggest that a devotion to music can help delay the decline of some hearing abilities by as much as 20 years. For instance, the average 70-year-old musician was able to understand speech in a noisy environment as well as an average 50-year-old non-musician.

Dr. Zendel, who is now a research fellow at the University of Montreal, said musicians are partly shielded from age-related hearing loss because they are required to use their auditory skills at a very high level on a regular basis. "It's a case of use it or lose it," he explained.

"When you play [music]with a group of people – whether it is in a rock band or a symphony – you have to listen to what everyone else is doing to keep time with them," he said. "So it is a very demanding cognitive activity."

There can be a downside to prolonged exposure to loud music: hearing damage. Still, wearing special hearing protection can minimize such problems, he added.

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