Musical practice and cognitive aging: two cross-sectional studies point to phonemic fluency as a potential candidate for a use-dependent adaptation

Front Aging Neurosci. 2014 Oct 9;6:227. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2014.00227. eCollection 2014.


Because of permanent use-dependent brain plasticity, all lifelong individuals' experiences are believed to influence the cognitive aging quality. In older individuals, both former and current musical practices have been associated with better verbal skills, visual memory, processing speed, and planning function. This work sought for an interaction between musical practice and cognitive aging by comparing musician and non-musician individuals for two lifetime periods (middle and late adulthood). Long-term memory, auditory-verbal short-term memory, processing speed, non-verbal reasoning, and verbal fluencies were assessed. In Study 1, measures of processing speed and auditory-verbal short-term memory were significantly better performed by musicians compared with controls, but both groups displayed the same age-related differences. For verbal fluencies, musicians scored higher than controls and displayed different age effects. In Study 2, we found that lifetime period at training onset (childhood vs. adulthood) was associated with phonemic, but not semantic, fluency performances (musicians who had started to practice in adulthood did not perform better on phonemic fluency than non-musicians). Current frequency of training did not account for musicians' scores on either of these two measures. These patterns of results are discussed by setting the hypothesis of a transformative effect of musical practice against a non-causal explanation.

Keywords: brain reserve; cognitive aging; cognitive transfer; musical practice; verbal functions.