The positive benefits of music for the frail elderly abound in medical literature, but new research suggests music that is too loud may be more harmful than helpful.

In fact, background music of any kind may impede seniors’ ability to commit simple information like people’s names to short-term memory, according to Georgia Institute of Technology researchers. Their study, “Turn Off the Music! Music Impairs Visual Associative Memory Performance in Older Adults,” appears in the January 29 online issue of The Gerontologist.

Study participants, which included college-aged individuals and older adults, were asked to match faces and names they were given under two scenarios. The first was silence, while the second was musical rain or non-lyrical rock music, including lesser-known songs from Eric Clapton, Jefferson Airplane and Rush. While both types of participants found the music distracting, older adults had the most trouble remembering. In fact, older adults remembered 10% fewer names when listening to music, according to researchers.

Study adviser and School of Psychology Assistant Professor Audrey Duarte, Ph.D., noted that the study only confirms the deterioration of associative memory in the aging brain. Associative memory allows people to link pieces of data, like names and faces, together.

Researchers concluded that the results have “practical implications for older adults’ ability to perform cognitively demanding tasks even in what many consider to be an unobtrusive environment.” Sarah Reaves, the Georgia Tech psychology graduate student who led the study, said the results could help assisted living center caregivers better plan activities.

A great deal of research has been done on the positive effects of music among institutionalized elderly, particularly in dementia care. Some clinicians have recently advised caregivers to adjust the settings of their residents’ hearing aids in order to better enjoy the dynamic range of music.