Brain training games have recently become extremely popular because we all want to stay mentally sharp as we age. These games promise to preserve and better our mental function and, more importantly, our memories.
But is that what these games are actually doing? The latest research isn’t promising for the brain training games, in that they failed a big scientific test.
As these brain training games look less promising, where can you turn to aid in mental function and memory? It turns out that the connection between memory and hearing is stronger than what scientists initially thought. In fact, research consistently highlights the importance of healthy hearing to a healthy memory.
Let’s review how human memory works and show 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 only location where memory storage occurs.
Memories are stored all across the brain with electrical and chemical signals that involve billions of neurons and trillions of connections between them. Needless to say, memory is not fully understood, and will most likely never be.
We are sure of, however, that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
When we pay attention to something in the environment, we are undergoing the process of encoding. This stage helps you filter out unimportant information and helps you focus on what’s important. Otherwise, if your brain were to store every single stimulus you were exposed to on a daily basis, your memory would fill to capacity very quickly.
Memory storage follows encoding. Your short-term or working memory can hold about seven pieces of information for 20-30 seconds. This capacity has the ability to expand through several techniques, such as chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups) or by using mnemonic devices.
Information stored in short-term memory has two outcomes. The information either fades away and is lost or becomes stored as a part of your 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 if you become:
- less distracted and more focused on the information you plan on storing.
- exposed to the information frequently and for long periods of time.
- able to associate the new information with information you have previously stored.
The last stage is memory retrieval. This stage allows you to recall, at will, information stored in long-term memory. The better the information is 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. This means that it can change its structure in response to new stimuli. Although this seems like a positive characteristic, it can sometimes have negative effects.
As we age, our brain does in fact change both chemically and structurally. It loses some cells, some connections between cells, and generally shrinks in size. These changes can impair 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 age. We are able to learn new things and strengthen our memories simultaneously. In fact, studies show that exercise and mental stimulation can keep our brains sharp well into our 80s.
The lack of use of the brain is the biggest culprit of memory decline as we age. This is 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 it actually have an effect on our memory?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can in fact impact your memory, and it’s easy to see why. We’ve already shown 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 hearing loss, two things are simultaneously happening. One, you’re 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. Firstly, in order to keep our minds active and sharp, we must challenge ourselves and learn new things.
Secondly, it is important to take the proper steps to improve our hearing. We can better encode and remember information when our hearing is enhanced by hearing aids. This enhanced sound stimulation aids us in our daily lives, especially in 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.