We all hope to keep our memory sharp as we grow old. This is why brain training games have recently become so popular. These brain training games promise to better our mental function and, more importantly, preserve our memories.
We won’t debate if that is what these games are actually doing, but the latest research isn’t promising for the brain training games. These games actually failed a big scientific test, proving their effectiveness to be less than what was previously thought.
As brain training games begin to look less promising, where should you turn? It turns out that the connection between memory and hearing is stronger than anyone initially thought. In fact, research continues to highlight the importance of healthy hearing to a healthy memory.
Let’s review how human memory works and how treating hearing loss is one of the best ways to give your memory a boost.
How human memory works
Human memory is very complex. There are no single areas of the brain we can point to as being the one location where memories are stored because it is such a widespread process.
Memory storage occurs across the entire brain with electrical and chemical signals involving billions of neurons and trillions of connections between them. Memory is an extremely extensive process that is not nearly understood.
However, what we do know is that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
Encoding is the first stage. This stage occurs when you pay attention to something in the environment. Encoding helps you filter out information that is not needed and focus on what’s important. If your brain attempted to store every piece of information it processed, your memory would quickly fill to capacity.
The next stage is the memory storage. Your short-term or working memory can hold about seven pieces of information for 20-30 seconds. Several techniques allow for the expansion of this capacity, such as chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups, for example) or by using mnemonic devices.
The information that you store in short-term memory either fades away and is lost or becomes stored as long-term memory. In order to move information from short-term to long-term memory, you must practice attention, repetition, and association. You can improve your memory of any piece of information as you become:
- less distracted and more focused on the information you want to store.
- exposed to the information more frequently and for longer periods of time.
- able to associate the new information with information you already have.
The final stage is referred to as retrieval. This is where you can recall, at will, information stored in long-term memory. It becomes easier to recall this information if it was initially encoded and stored successfully.
How growing older affects memory
Brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change its structure in response to new stimuli. This characteristic can be both good and bad.
As we age, our brain changes. It loses some cells, some connections between cells, and generally shrinks in size. These structural and chemical changes can worsen our memory and also impede our general cognitive function as we grow older.
However, the plasticity of our brains also has an upside. This plasticity allows us to create new connections as we age, learning new things and strengthening our memories at the same time. In fact, recent cognitive studies have shown that exercise and mental stimulation can keep our brains sharp well into our 70s and 80s.
Keeping our minds active and learning new things is an essential part of healthy aging because the main culprit of memory loss is simply lack of use.
How hearing loss affects memory
The question is then raised: Can hearing loss actually affect our ability to remember things?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can most definitely affect your memory, and it’s easy to see why. We’ve already seen that your ability to store and keep information in long-term memory is dependent on your ability to pay attention to what is being processed.
For those who experience hearing loss, two things are happening when they have a conversation. First, you’re simply not able to hear part of what is being said, so your brain is never able to properly encode the information in the first place. Later, when you need to recall the information, you can’t.
Next, because only part of what is being said is heard, you have to devote mental resources to trying to figure out meaning through context. In the struggle to understand meaning, most of the information is distorted or lost.
The brain has been proven to reorganize itself in those with hearing loss. With reduced sound stimulation, the part of the brain responsible for sound processing becomes less strong and the brain then recruits this area for other tasks.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
From our discussion thus far, the solution to improving our memories as we age is clear. First, we need to keep our minds sharp and active, challenging ourselves and learning new things. Physical exercise can go a long way in achieving this goal.
Second, and just as important, is taking the steps to improve our hearing. Enhancing sound stimulation with hearing aids can help us to better encode and remember information, especially during conversations. And, the enhanced sound stimulation to the parts of the brain responsible for sound processing ensures that these areas stay strong.
So forget the brain games—learn something new that you have an interest in and schedule your hearing test to ensure that your hearing is the best it can be.