We all want to stay mentally sharp as we age, which is why brain training games have become so popular. They promise to preserve our mental function and, more importantly, our memories.
But is that what’s actually happening? We won’t get into the debate here, but suffice to say that the latest research isn’t promising for the brain training games, in that they failed a big scientific test.
With brain training games looking less promising, where can 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 a complex, brain-wide process. There are no single areas of the brain we can point to as being the one location where memories are stored.
Memories are stored across the brain with electrical and chemical 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, encoding, occurs when you pay attention to something in the environment. This helps you filter out unimportant information and focus on what’s important. Otherwise, if your brain were to store every stimulus you were exposed to, your memory would quickly fill to capacity.
The next stage is memory storage. Your short-term or working memory can hold about seven pieces of information for 20-30 seconds. You can expand this capacity through several techniques, such as chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups, for example) 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. Your memory of any piece of information will improve 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 next stage is memory retrieval, where you can recall, at will, information stored in long-term memory. The better the information in encoded and stored, the easier it will be to recall.
How Growing Older Affects Memory
We should keep in mind that the brain has what is called plasticity, meaning it can change its structure in response to new stimuli. This can be both good and bad.
As we age, our brain does in fact change. It loses some cells, some connections between cells, and generally shrinks in size. These structural and chemical changes can impair our memory and general cognitive function as we grow older.
However, the plasticity of our brains also means that we can create new connections as we age, learning new things and strengthening our memories at the same time. In fact, studies have shown that exercise and mental stimulation can keep our brains sharp well into our 80s.
It’s really a lack of use that is the biggest culprit of memory decline as we age. That’s why keeping our minds active and learning new things is an essential part of healthy aging.
How Hearing Loss Affects Memory
What about hearing loss? Can hearing loss actually affect our memory?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can impact your memory, and it’s easy to see why. We’ve already seen that your ability to store information in long-term memory is dependent on your ability to pay attention.
So let’s say you’re having a conversation with someone. With hearing loss, two things are happening. One, 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.
Second, 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. In the struggle to understand meaning, most of the information is distorted or lost.
On top of it all, the brain has been shown to reorganize itself in those with hearing loss. With reduced sound stimulation, the part of the brain responsible for sound processing becomes weaker and the brain then recruits 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 clear. First, we need to keep our minds active and sharp, challenging ourselves and learning new things. A little physical exercise can go a long way as well.
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.