As we grow old, we all have the same goal of remaining mentally sharp. Because keeping our minds sharp is extremely difficult, brain training games have recently become so popular. These games aim to preserve our mental function and, more importantly, they promise to better our memories.
But do these games really do what they promise to? That won’t be debated here, but it is safe to say that the latest research does not support their effectiveness. In fact, these games failed many big scientific tests.
With brain training games appearing less promising, where can you turn? It turns out that the relationship between hearing and memory is more significant than what researchers initially thought. In fact, research shows us over and over again the importance of healthy hearing to a sharp memory.
Let’s review how human memory works and how treating hearing loss is one of the best ways in which you can better your memory.
How human memory works
The process of human memory is extremely complex. This complexity is amplified by the widespread nature of memory across the brain. By widespread, we mean that there is no single area of the brain we can point to as being the one location where memory storage takes place.
Electrical and chemical signals involving billions of neurons and trillions of connections between them are what create memory storage in the brain. Because this process involves so many intricate connections, memory is not nearly fully understood.
What research has shown us, however, is that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
Encoding is the first stage that occurs when we attempt to process and store information. This happens when you pay attention to some kind of stimulus in the environment around you. This attention is what aids you in filtering out unneeded information and helps you focus on the important things you are hopefully going to store. If filtering did not take place, your brain would subconsciously try to store every stimulus you were exposed to. With this much information coming in at one time, your memory would quickly fill to capacity.
The memory stage occurs after encoding. As you process information in your short-term or working memory, this stage is taking place. Your short-term memory can only hold about seven pieces of information for just about 20-30 seconds. This capacity is not very extensive. But luckily, it can be expanded through several techniques. These techniques include chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups) or by using mnemonic devices.
Information that we store in short-term memory is either completely lost or it becomes stored as long-term memory. The are three keys to successfully moving information from short-term to long-term memory. These are attention, repetition, and association. This is so because our memory of information will improve as we become:
- More focused and less distracted when processing the information you are trying to store.
- Exposed to the information more frequently and for longer periods of time.
- Able to associate the new information with information already stored in our long-term memory.
The last and final stage of memory is retrieval. This stage exists when you are able to recall information stored in long-term memory at will. If the information was successfully encoded and stored when it was initially accepted, it will be much easier to recall it later on.
How growing older affects memory
In order to truly understand how growing older affects our memory, we must remember that the brain has a characteristic called plasticity. Because the brain is plastic, it can change its structure as new stimuli is encountered. This plasticity seems like it can bring about only positive effects, but it can actually have some negative effects as well.
As we age, our brain changes in different ways. It loses cells, loses connections between cells, and can generally shrink in size. These changes that occur both structurally and chemically can impair our memory and worsen our general cognitive function.
On the positive side, the plasticity of our brains means that we can create connections as we age,c connections that did not previously exist. In addition, we are able to learn new things and strengthen our memories simultaneously. In fact, studies show that simple exercise and mental stimulation can keep our brains sharp well into our 80s.
Lack of use is actually the biggest cause of memory decline as we age. That’s why keeping our minds active by learning new things is a very important part of healthy aging.
How hearing loss affects memory
So the big question is: Can hearing loss actually affect our memory?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can negatively impact your ability to remember, which is clear to see. We’ve already explained how your ability to store information in long-term memory is dependent on your ability to pay attention to the stimulus you hope to remember.
For example, when you are having a conversation with someone and you have a hearing impairment, two things are happening. Firstly, you’re not able to hear a portion of what is being said because of your impairment, so your brain is not able to encode the information properly. Later, when it is time to recall the information, you can’t because it was never encoded successfully in the first place.
Secondly, because only a part of the conversation is being encoded, you have to devote mental resources to trying to figure out the meaning through the context of the conversation. In the struggle to understand meaning and fill in information that you missed, most of the information is misunderstood or lost.
On top of all of this, the brain has been shown to reorganize itself in those who experience hearing loss. This is a result of reduced stimulation in the part of the brain responsible for sound processing. This part of the brain that is usually strengthened by sound actually becomes weaker. This then leads the brain to recruit this area for other tasks.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
From the discussion so far, we have made the solution to improving our memories as we age quite obvious. Firstly, we need to keep our minds active and sharp through stimulation as often as possible. We can achieve this by challenging ourselves and with learning new things.
Secondly, is taking the proper steps to improve our hearing. Although this idea seems to take a backseat very often, it is actually just as important as keeping our minds active. Enhancing auditory stimulation with hearing aids results in better/easier encoding of information. This then means that we will be able to remember the information more successfully later on. This is especially important during conversations that we have on a daily basis. The enhanced sound stimulation that hearing aids provide to the parts of the brain responsible for sound processing ensures that the areas of our brain responsible for memory stay strong.
So forget about the very popular brain games— instead, learn something new that interests you and schedule a hearing test to make sure that your hearing is the best it can be.