Childhood music lessons could pay off in protecting the brain against dementia decades later, even in those who don't continue to play, researchers are learning. 
 
In one study, children who played instruments performed better on memory tests even decades later.  

Music training benefits the brain's cognitive function. Neuroscientists in Illinois tested for delays in how the brain responds to fast-changing elements of speech.

Girl playing piano

Learning to play an instrument early in life can help the brain decades later, even if the instrument isn't played during adulthood. (iStock)

In November, they published their findings that four to 14 years of music training early in life was associated with faster processing, 40 years after the music training stopped. None of the subjects reported practising an instrument, performing or instruction after age 25.

Dr. Luis Fornazzari of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, has also studied musicians' memory in relation to dementia.
 
"The elderly who knew music or they were a musician at one point in their life, they were protected from this normal decay in the discrimination of the sounds," Fornazzari said.
 
"The brain becomes absolutely trained in the discrimination of the sounds, the human voice and the different instruments, the different notes and that lasts." 
 
The advantage of learning to read music is it activates many areas of the brain, scientists say.
 
It's thought that learning music or a second language builds up reserve capacity in the brain to help hold dementia at bay.  
 
"If the disease occurs and you have good brain reserve capacity, you can tolerate the effect of the disease for longer so not showing the symptoms until later," Fornazzari said.
 
The findings are music to the ears of Renita Greener of Toronto.
 
"I had one of those teachers who was very sort of old school and it was all about doing, doing, doing.  There wasn't a lot of fun so I sort of dropped it,"  Greener recalled.  

With files from CBC's Kim Brunhuber and Melanie Glanz