Brain training games are popular right now for one reason–because people are worried about mental acuity, something that we all fear drops with age. These games market themselves as the savior of mental function and those all too important memories.
How accurate is all this brain game hype, though? We don’t want to debate the issue but the latest research is less than conclusive, especially since these tests failed to meet a major scientific standard.
With brain training less effective than you might hope, what’s next for people who want to preserve their memories? We do understand there is a clear connection between memory and hearing, one that is bigger than most people understand. In fact, the research highlights the relationship between healthy hearing and a healthy memory.
To see the connection, you must understand how human memory works and why treating hearing loss might just give yours a boost.
How human memory works
Human memory is a complex and systemic brain process. There is no one area of the brain pinpointed as the place where memories are stored.
This storage occurs across the brain using a multitude of electrical and chemical signals in partnership with billions of neurons and trillions of connections. It is easy to see why memory is not fully understood.
What we do know is creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
In the first stage, encoding, a person will focus more on environmental stimuli. This step helps filter out the unimportant information, so you monitor what’s important. Without this initial step, the brain would store every stimulus you were exposed to and your memory would fill to capacity very quickly.
Stage two involves short memory storage. Short-term or working memory holds about seven pieces of information for only about 20-30 seconds. There are techniques to expand this capacity such as chunking (the breaking down of long strings of numbers into groups) or using mnemonic devices.
The information that is stored in short-term the memory does one of two things: it might fade away and be lost forever or becomes stored as long-term memory. The keys to moving information from short-term to long-term memory involve attention, repetition, and association. The memory of any piece of information will improve if you are:
1. less distracted and more focused on the information you want to store.
2. exposed to the information more frequently and for longer periods of time.
3. able to associate the new information with information you already have.
The third stage is memory retrieval, which allows you to recall any information stored in long-term memory. The more efficiently the information in encoded and stored, the easier it will be to recall.
How growing older affects memory
The human brain has what scientists call plasticity, meaning it can change its structure in response to new stimuli. This is a good news/ bad news scenario.
As a person ages, the brain loses some cells, alters connections between cells, and generally shrinks in size. These structural and chemical changes effectively impair the memory and reduce cognitive function with age.
However, brain plasticity also means you can create new connections with age, in other words, learn new things and strengthen the memories at the same time. Studies show that exercise and mental stimulation keep our brains sharp well into our 80s.
It’s when you stop using your brain that memory declines with age. Maintaining an active mind and learning new things is critical to healthy aging.
How hearing loss affects memory
So, where does hearing loss fit in the memory story? Can hearing loss actually affect a person’s memory?
Researchers have found that hearing loss does impact the memory. It’s not a hard concept to grasp. We already know that storing information in long-term memory relies on your ability to pay attention.
Imagine having a conversation with someone. When you have hearing loss, you may not be able to hear part of what is being said and that information is never able to properly. Later on, when you need to recall the information, it’s not there.
When you’re only hearing part of what is being said, you have to devote mental resources to figuring out the meaning of the information through context. In that struggle to understand, much information is distorted or lost.
Add to that the fact that the brain is able to reorganize itself to compensate for hearing loss. With reduced sound stimulation, the part of the brain responsible for auditory processing weakens and the brain then recruits this area for other tasks.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
The solution to improving our memories as we age is clear. Keep the mind active and sharp by challenging yourself and continuing to learn new things. Don’t forget, also, a little physical exercise goes a long way.
Second, and equally as important, take steps necessary to improve hearing. Amplifying sound stimulation with hearing aids allows for better encoding and information storage, especially during conversations. In addition, the enhanced sound stimulation ensures the areas of the brain that process sound stay strong.