Over the years, research has shown the benefits of studying music can improve academic performance and heal emotional traumas — and now researchers have learned it can protect protect memory, hearing and brain processing, too.

Nina Kraus, professor of neurobiology, physiology and communication sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, conducted a study at the school’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory with 87 people between 18 and 65, half of whom started taking music lessons before they were 9 years old. The others, deemed “non-musicians,” had taken fewer than three years of music lessons.

All the participants had electrodes attached to their heads to measure what neurologists call “neural timing,” or how long it takes for a human brain to process an auditory signal. The normal aging process slows that timing, making it more difficult to process sounds, Kraus told ABC News.

Her results showed musicians suffer less from aging-related memory and hearing losses than non-musicians. In fact, older musicians in the study could process auditory signal almost as fast as the younger participants, while the non-musicians lagged considerably behind — indicating that playing a musical instrument was crucial to retaining memory and hearing.

“As a musician, you get very good at pulling out important information from a complex soundscape,” whether it’s a musical performance or listening to someone speaking in a noisy room, Kraus said. “The orchestra is playing and you are pulling out the violin line, or the base line, or some harmony. You are always pulling out meaningful components from sound and that’s really not all that different from hearing your friend’s voice in a noisy restaurant.”

“That involves hearing, but it’s related to how quickly you can process information and how well you remember it,” she said.

Kraus, whose work appears in the online edition of the journal Neurobiology of Aging, also says that even if you’ve never had a single music lesson, it might not be too late to start.

“From everything I know about how the brain changes with experience and what I know about the effect of musical experience on the nervous system,” she adds, “my scientific gut feeling is that it can only help.”

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