Brain games often promise to preserve our mental function and, even more importantly, our memories. Although these games have become increasingly popular, the growing popularity of these games may not in fact be as reassuring as it initially seemed.
We won’t debate if that is what these games actually do, but the latest research isn’t promising for the brain training games, in that they failed a big scientific test.
Because brain training games have not seemed as promising, many people are looking for another place to turn. Recent studies have shown that the connection between memory and hearing is much more crucial than anyone initially thought. In fact, these research studies frequently show the importance of sharp hearing to a sharp memory.
In order to understand the importance of treating hearing loss, we must review the process of human memory.
How human memory works
Human memory is an extremely complex process that is widespread across all areas of the brain. There is not a single area of the brain that we can designate as the one location where memories are stored.
Memory storage occurs across in many places of the brain with electrical and chemical signals involving many neurons and even more connections between them. Memory is not fully understood, needless to say.
We are aware, however, that the creation of memories occurs in three different stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
The first stage occurs when something in the environment catches your attention. This is referred to as encoding. This stage helps you filter out unimportant information and focus on what’s important. If not, your brain would attempt to store every stimulus you were exposed to, and your memory would quickly fill to capacity.
The next stage is called the memory storage. Your short-term or working memory can hold up to seven pieces of information for about 20-30 seconds. This initially seems like not a lot of information, but thankfully there are several techniques to expand this capacity. Two of these techniques are chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups, for example) and the use of mnemonic devices.
Short-term memory either fades away and is lost completely, or this information becomes stored as long-term memory. Three 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 as you:
- Become more focused and less distracted on the new incoming information.
- Expose yourself to the information frequently and for longer periods of time.
- Associate the incoming information with information you have previously stored.
The final stage is memory retrieval. This stage allows you to recall, at will, information stored in long-term memory. If the information is encoded and stored successfully, it will be easier to recall.
How growing older affects memory
The brain’s ability to change its structure in response to new stimuli is called plasticity. Plasticity can be both good and bad at the same time.
As we age, our brain does actually change. Many connections between cells are lost, many cells are lost, and the size of the brain shrinks. These changes occur both structurally and chemically. They are able to not only impair memory, but also our general cognitive function as we age.
On the other hand, our brain plasticity means that we have the ability to create new connections as we age, learning new things and strengthening our ability to remember at the same time. In fact, studies have recently shown that mental stimulation and exercise can help our brains stay sharp well into our 80s.
Lack of use is the most prominent reason for memory loss. That’s why keeping our minds active and learning new things is essential to healthy aging.
How hearing loss affects memory
What about when it comes to hearing loss? Can hearing loss actually worsen our memory?
Studies show that hearing loss can impact your memory. We’ve already seen that your ability to store information in long-term memory is dependent on your ability to pay attention.
So let’s examine how this process works. For instance, say you’re having a conversation with someone. When experiencing hearing loss, two things are happening at the same time. One, you’re not able to physically hear part of what is being said, so your brain is never able to encode the information properly in the first place. Later on, when you need to recall the knowledge, you simply can’t.
Second, because only a part of the information is being encoded, you must now devote mental resources to trying to figure out meaning through the context of the conversation. In the struggle to understand, most of the information is either distorted or lost.
To top it off, the brain is able to reorganize itself in those who experience hearing loss. With reduced sound stimulation, the part of the brain that is 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, we need to keep our minds active and sharp, challenging ourselves and learning new things. A little physical exercise can go a long way as well.
In addition, taking the proper steps to improve our hearing is just as important. Hearing aids help us properly encode information which can then help us remember information, especially during conversations. And, the enhanced sound stimulation to the parts of the brain responsible for sound processing ensures that these areas stay strong.
So forget about the silly 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.