Because we all want to stay mentally sharp as we age, brain training games have become growingly popular. With the promise to preserve our mental function and our memories, these games have become a resource to help our mental strength.
But do these games really work? That topic will not be debated here, but the latest research has not exactly seemed promising for the brain training games, in that they failed many scientific tests.
Because these games are seeming less effective, where can you turn to strengthen your mind? It turns out that the connection between memory and hearing is much more prevalent than anyone initially thought. In fact, research constantly highlights the importance of healthy hearing to a healthy memory.
In order to understand the effect that hearing has on memory, we must first review how human memory works. This shows how treating hearing loss is one of the best ways to give your memory a boost.
How human memory works
There are no single areas of the brain we can point to as being the one location where memories are stored. This process is extremely complex and brain-wide.
Memory is not nearly understood due to the intricate connections and many cells that it involves. Memories are stored across the brain with electrical and chemical signals involving billions of neurons and trillions of connections between them.
Research has shown us, however, that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
Encoding, the first stage, occurs when you process incoming information from the environment. This stage filters unimportant information out and keys in on what’s important. If filtering did not occur, your brain would store every stimulus you were exposed to, and this would lead to your memory becoming quickly filled.
Memory stage follows the encoding stage. Your short-term or working memory can retain about seven pieces of information for 20-30 seconds. Chunking, breaking long strings of numbers into groups, and the use of mnemonic devices can help in expanding your capacity to remember things.
Information that you store in short-term memory either fades away or becomes stored as long-term memory. The keys to successfully moving information from short-term to long-term memory are attention, repetition, and association. In order to improve your memory of any piece of information you must 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.
Retrieval is the last stage. Retrieval allows you to willingly recall 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
When trying to understand how the mind works, we must be recall that the brain has a characteristic referred to as plasticity. These means that it can change its structure in response to new stimuli, which 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.
The plasticity of our brains also means that we can create new connections as we age, which helps us learn new things and strengthen our memories at the same time. Studies have actually shown that exercise and mental stimulation can keep our brains sharp well into aging.
Memory decline is most dramatic in people who simply do not use their mind as frequently. The negative effects of lack of use leads us to understand why keeping our minds active and learning new things is an essential part of healthy aging.
How hearing loss affects memory
But does hearing loss really affect your ability to remember?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can impair your memory, and it’s relatively easy to see why. We’ve already seen that in order to store information in long-term memory, we must be able to pay attention closely.
This becomes extremely critical when we consider having a conversation with someone. With hearing loss, two things are happening. Right off the bat, you’re simply not able to hear part of what is being said. This means that your brain is never able to encode the information correctly in the first place. Later on, when you try to recall the information, you can’t.
Second, because you’re not hearing all of what is being said, you have to use mental resources to trying to figure out meaning through context. When struggling to try and understand the meaning, most of the information is distorted or lost.
On top of it all, the brain has the ability to reorganize itself in those with hearing loss. This leads to reduced sound stimulation, which makes the part of the brain responsible for sound processing to become weaker. This makes the brain then recruit 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 our mental ability and learning new things. A little physical exercise can be very helpful with this as well.
Second, and just as important, is taking the steps to improve our hearing. When we enhance our hearing with hearing aids, we can better encode and remember information, especially during conversations. And, the enhanced sound stimulation to the parts of the brain responsible for sound processing helps 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.