We all want to stay mentally sharp as we age, which is why brain training games have become so popular. They work to preserve our mental function and, even more significantly, our memories. But is that what’s actually happening? We won’t get into the debate here, but it is sufficient to say that the latest research isn’t promising for the brain training games, with results that failed a big scientific test. With brain training games looking less effective, where can you turn? It turns out that the connection between hearing and memory is stronger than anyone initially believed. In fact, research continues to emphasize the importance of healthy hearing to a healthy memory. Let’s review the human memory process and how treating the hearing loss is one of the best ways to give your memory a boost.
How human memory works
Human memory is an intricate, brain-wide process. There are no single areas of the brain we can point to as being the sole location where memories are stored. Memories are kept across the brain with chemical and electrical signals involving billions of neurons and trillions of connections between them. Needless to say, memory is not fully understood. What we do know, however, is that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. The first stage is encoding. This stage occurs when you pay attention to something around you in the environment. This helps you filter out insignificant information and concentrate on what’s important. This filtering is extremely important because if your brain were to store each and every stimulus you were exposed to, your memory would quickly fill to capacity. The next stage is memory storage. Your short-term (working) memory can hold about seven pieces of information for 20-30 seconds.There are several techniques to expand this capacity. One of these techniques, chunking, occurs when you break long strings of numbers into groups or by using mnemonic devices. Information stored in short-term memory either fades away and is lost or becomes stored as long-term memory. The keys to moving information from short-term to long-term memory are attention, repetition, and association. There are three main ways that your memory of a piece of information will improve:
1. less distracted and more focused on the information you want to store.
2. exposed to the information more frequently and for longer periods of time.
3. able to associate the new information with information you already have.
The next stage is memory retrieval, where you can willingly recall information stored in long-term memory. If the information is encoded and stored well, it is easier to recall.
How growing older affects memory
We should keep in mind that the brain can change its structure in response to new stimuli, a characteristic called plasticity. This can have both positive and negative effects. As we age, our brain does in fact change. It loses some cells, some connections between cells, and generally becomes smaller in size. These structural and chemical changes can worsen our memory and general cognitive function as we age. However, the plasticity of our brains also means that we can create new connections as we grow older, learning new things and strengthening our memories at the same time. In fact, studies have shown that mental stimulation and exercise can keep our brains sharp well into our 80s. Lack of use seems to be the biggest culprit of memory decline as we age. That’s why it is extremely important to keep our minds active and learn new things in order to achieve healthy aging.
How hearing loss affects memory
What about hearing loss? Can hearing loss actually have an effect on our memory? Studies have shown that hearing loss can have an impact on your memory, and it is clear as to why. We’ve already seen that your ability to store information in long-term memory is dependent on your ability to pay attention. For example, let’s imagine you are having a conversation with someone. With hearing loss, two things are simultaneously occurring. Firstly, you’re simply not able to hear a portion of what is being said, so your brain is never able to encode the information properly in the first place. Later on, when you try to recall the information, you are unable to do so. Secondly, because you’re only hearing part of what is being said, you have to devote mental resources to trying to figure out meaning through context, resources that should be used in other processes. In the process of understanding the meaning of what is being said, most of the information is distorted or completely lost. On top of it all, the brain has been shown to reorganize itself in those who experience hearing loss. With less sound stimulation, the part of the brain responsible for sound processing becomes weaker and the brain then uses this area for other tasks. Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test From the discussion so far, the solution to improving our memories as we age is obvious. First, we need to keep our minds active and sharp, constantly challenging ourselves and learning new things. Physical exercise can be extremely helpful with this. Second, and equally as important, is taking the proper steps to improve hearing. Enhancing sound stimulation with hearing aids can help us to better encode and remember information, especially during conversations. In addition, the enhanced sound stimulation to the parts of the brain responsible for sound processing ensures that these areas stay as strong as possible. So forget about the brain games—learn something new and exciting that you have an interest in and schedule your hearing test to ensure that your hearing is the best it can be.