We all want to stay mentally sharp as we grow old, which is why brain training games have become so popular in today’s society. They promise to prolong our mental function and, more importantly, our memories of our past.
But is that what’s actually happening? We won’t get into the debate here, but suffice to say that the latest research is not favorable for the brain training games, in that they failed a big scientific test.
What can we do to maintain our brain function if brain training games are not as helpful as we thought? It happens that the connection between memory and our hearing is much stronger than we might think. In fact, research continues to show the importance of healthy hearing function to a healthy memory and mind.
Let’s see how human memory works and how treating hearing loss is one of the best ways to give your brain a boost.
How human memory works
Human memory is a complex process that uses the entire brain. There is no single region of the brain we can point to as being the one area where memories are stored.
Memories are saved across the brain with electrical and chemical signals involving billions of neurons and trillions of connections between them. Needless to say, memory is complicated and not fully understood yet.
However, studies have shown 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 around you. This helps filter out irrelevant information and focus on what’s important. If our brains stored every stimulus we were came into contact with, our memory would quickly fill to its capacity.
The next stage relates to the storage of memory. Short-term or working memory can hold about seven pieces of information for 20-30 seconds. You can expand this amount of storage through several approaches, such as chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups, for example) or by using tools like mnemonic devices.
Information stored in short-term memory either fades with time and is lost or is put into storage as long-term memory. The steps 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:
1. less distracted and pay more attention to the information you want to store.
2. brought into contact with the information more often and for longer amounts of time.
3. able to associate the new information with information you have currently stored
The final stage is memory retrieval, where you can remember, at will, information stored in long-term memory. The more efficiently 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 plasticity, which means it can change its structure in response to new stimuli. This can be both positive and negative.
As we age, our brain changes. It loses some cells, some connections between these cells, and generally decreases in size. These structural and chemical changes can damage our memory and general cognitive function as we grow older.
However, the plasticity of our brains also allows us to 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 brain function intact well into our 80s.
It’s truly a lack of utilization that is the biggest culprit of memory decline as we age. That’s why learning as many new things as we can and keeping our minds busy is an essential part of healthy aging.
How hearing loss affects memory
What about hearing loss? Can losing our hearing actually affect our memory function?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can impact your memory, and it’s easy to see why. We’ve already learned that your ability to store information in long-term memory is dependent on your ability to focus on information.
Here’s an example. Say you’re having a conversation with a person. With hearing loss, two things are happening. One, you’re unable to hear part of what is being said, so your brain is never able to properly store the correct information in the first place. Later, when you need to remember the information that was shared, you can’t.
Second, because you’re only hearing part of what is being said, you have to dedicate energy and resources to trying to decipher the meaning through context. In this struggle to understand meaning, most of the information ends up being distorted or lost.
Furthermore, 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 uses this area for other duties.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
From the discussion so far, the solution to enhancing and preserving our memories as we age is clear. Firstly, we need to keep our minds active and sharp, challenging ourselves and learning new things. Daily physical exercise can be beneficial to this as well.
Secondly, taking the steps to improve our hearing. Increasing sound stimulation with hearing aids can help us encode and recall information, especially during conversations and daily interactions. 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 are interested in and schedule your hearing test at your doctor’s office to make sure that your hearing is in the best shape it can be.