Child playing Piano
Researchers also noticed a consistently better performance among the individuals who had experience in playing musical instruments during the tests for processing speed and visuospatial skills. Wikimedia Commons

Researchers from Edinburgh have conducted a study that shows that children who play musical instruments have better thinking skills later on in life, in comparison with their non-musician counterparts.

These cognitive advantages include processing speed and visuospatial abilities, which are retained even at an older age.

Led by Dr Judith Okely, the study was conducted by researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Napier University. It was published in the journal Psychology and Ageing on the American Psychological Association's website, earlier this month, following a paper from the University of Edinburgh in 2022 that suggested a link between playing an instrument and better cognitive skills in old age. The research was funded by Age UK and the Economic and Social Research Council.

How was the study done?

The study involved 420 Scottish participants, hailing from the Edinburgh and Lothian areas, who were born in 1936.

"Between ages 70 and 82, participants had completed the same 13 cognitive tests (every three years), measuring the cognitive domains of verbal ability, verbal memory, processing speed, and visuospatial ability," the study's authors reported.

Among the 420 individuals, 40 per cent had played or learned to play a musical instrument during their childhood or adolescence stages.

Of that 40 per cent or, to be exact, 167 participants, 39 still continued to play a musical instrument at the age of 82. Meanwhile, most of the 420 individuals had played only one instrument as a child or as an adolescent, with approximately two-thirds reporting that they had played the piano.

What does processing speed mean?

Processing speed is a cognitive ability that translates to the amount of time it takes an individual to do a certain task. CogniFit acknowledges that, as one of the main elements of the cognitive process, it is "one of the most important skills in learning, academic performance, intellectual development, reasoning, and experience".

It is also related to the speed at which a person can understand and react to the information they receive, which could take different forms like visual, auditory, or movement.

What are visuospatial skills?

According to NeuronUP, visuospatial skills enable the human body to "represent, analyse, and mentally manipulate objects." They are needed for movement, depth, and distance perception, as well as spatial navigation or the ability to determine and maintain a route from one place to another.

Furthermore, Visuospatial skills are commonly used in situations that entail estimating the distance between two objects, like parking a car. This central cognitive ability can also be utilized in simpler daily activities such as buttoning shirts, making one's bed, and even drawing simple sketches.

How can the results be interpreted?

The Edinburgh researchers noted that all participants showed a similar level of decline in the cognitive tests done every three years. However, the authors also noticed a consistently better performance among the individuals who had experience in playing musical instruments during the tests for processing speed and visuospatial skills.

Though this does not immediately mean that children who play musical instruments will not experience cognitive decline as they age, it does suggest that this skill will keep their current mental abilities more intact later on in life.

"We see these results as an exciting starting point for further investigation into how musical experience from across the life course might contribute to healthy ageing," Dr Okely added.

The researchers are also planning further studies that will explore other aspects of ageing and would like to hear from people who have retired and can provide a wide range of musical experiences, including singing, dancing, performing, teaching, and listening to music.

In other related news, a previous study has claimed that, though the ageing process cannot be fully reversed, it may be slowed down by cooling down an organism in the human body. Meanwhile, another study has proven that smiling can reduce the negative effects of ageing such as memory decline.