Our mental well-being is an extremely important aspect of our health. Especially as we grow older, this goal of staying mentally sharp concerns many. Because we so often see people around us experiencing mental decline, we look for any way to avoid it. Because of this, brain training games have become extremely popular recently. These games hope to preserve our mental function and they even promise to preserve our memories.
But are these games as effective as they claim to be? That debate won’t be started here, but the latest research does not show significant positive results in favor of the games. The results have actually failed numerable scientific tests.
So where should we turn now that these games have been ruled out? Researchers have proven that the relationship between hearing and memory is an extremely important connection regarding our mental capability. Initially, no one understood just how significant this would be in the study of memory. In fact, research shows us over and over again that a sharp memory actually depends on healthy hearing.
In order to fully understand this relationship, we must first understand how human memory works. Once we understand this, we can fully grasp how important treating hearing loss is in order to better your memory.
How human memory works
The extreme complexity of human memory is amplified by the widespread nature of memory across all areas of the brain. By widespread, we mean that there is no single area of the brain we can point to as being the sole location where memory storage exists.
Neurons in the brain are responsible for creating memory storage in the brain. Billions of these create memories with the help of chemical and electrical signals. Because these connections are innumerable and very intricate, memory is not nearly fully understood by researchers.
What research has consistently shown us, however, is that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
When we process and store information around us in the environment, we are utilizing the stage referred to as encoding. The attention that we pay to the stimulus is what aids you in filtering. Filtering is the process of ridding your mind of unneeded information and retaining the important things you hope to store. If we did not do this, our brain would try to store every stimulus you were exposed to and your memory would quickly fill to capacity.
Next is the memory stage. As you encounter information on a daily basis, it enters your short-term or working memory. This is the beginning of the memory stage. Your short-term memory can only hold about seven pieces of information for about 20-30 seconds. This capacity does not seem like much, but luckily, it can be expanded through some techniques. These include chunking, which is breaking long strings of numbers into groups, or by using mnemonic devices in order to remember information more efficiently.
All information that we try to store has two ending results. It is either lost, or it becomes stored in long-term memory. In order to move it from short-term to long-term memory, there are three keys to help us successfully do this. These are attention, repetition, and association. This is helpful because our memory of information will improve as we become:
- More focused and less distracted on the information
- Exposed to the information more frequently.
- Able to associate the new information with information already stored.
The last stage of memory is retrieval. Despite not dealing with the physical storage of incoming information, this stage is extremely important to how successful our memory is. This stage is successfully occurring when you are able to willingly recall information stored in long-term memory. This information will be much easier to retrieve later on If the information was successfully encoded and stored when it was initially accepted.
How growing older affects memory
In order to be able to understand how growing older really impacts our memory, we must examine a process of the brain called plasticity. This refers to the brain’s ability to change its structure as new stimuli is faced. Although this seems like a positive characteristic, brain plasticity can actually have some negative effects as well.
As we age, our brain changes in many ways both structurally and chemically. It loses cells, loses connections between cells, and can generally shrink in size. These changes can impair our memory and worsen our cognitive function.
On the other side of plasticity, our brain is actually able to create connections as we age, connections that did not previously exist. When we learn new things and are faced with new information on a daily basis, we are gaining knowledge as well as strengthening our memories simultaneously. This has been proven in many studies that show that mental stimulation can keep our minds active well into our 80s.
The biggest cause of mental decline as we age is simply lack of use.
How hearing loss affects memory
So can hearing loss actually affect our memory?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can impact your ability to remember, which has been made clear throughout our discussion. We’ve already explained how in order to store information in long-term memory, we must pay attention to the stimulus you are trying to store.
For example, if you are someone who has a hearing impairment and you are having a conversation, two things are happening. Firstly, because of your impairment, you’re simply not able to hear part of what is being said. Because your brain is not receiving clear and logical information, you are not able to encode properly. Later, when you try to recall the information you attempted to store earlier, you are unable to because it was never encoded successfully in the first place.
Secondly, because parts of the information are unclear and confused, you have to devote mental resources to trying to figure out the meaning through context. When trying to understand this meaning, much of the information is misunderstood or lost.
On top of all of this, the brain has been shown to reorganize itself in those who experience hearing loss. This is a result of reduced stimulation in the part of the brain responsible for sound processing. This part of the brain that is usually strengthened by sound actually becomes weaker, which then leads the brain to recruit this area for other tasks.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
From the discussion so far, we have made the solution to improving our memories as we age quite obvious. Firstly, we need to keep our minds active and sharp through stimulation as often as possible. We can achieve this by challenging ourselves and with learning new things.
Secondly, is taking the proper steps to improve our hearing. Whether it be visiting a hearing doctor regularly or just simply treating your hearing, this concept is extremely important to keeping our minds sharp. Enhancing auditory stimulation with hearing aids results in better/easier encoding of information. This then means that we will be able to remember the information more successfully later on. This is especially important during conversations that we have on a daily basis. The enhanced sound stimulation that hearing aids provide to the parts of the brain responsible for sound processing ensures that the areas of our brain responsible for memory stay strong.
So forget about the very popular brain games— instead, learn something new that interests you and schedule a hearing test to make sure that your hearing is the best it can be.