When we examine the effects of aging, one of our greatest concerns is staying mentally and cognitively sharp as we grow older. Because everyone has this hope, brain training games have recently become popular. They promise to preserve our minds and better our cognitive functioning, as well as better our memories.
However, recent questions have been raised regarding the effectiveness of these games. As more and more time has been spent studying and testing these games, the latest research and results aren’t promising for the future of these games.
Now that these games are beginning to be ruled out as a way to help our minds, where can we turn? The answer to this question actually largely relies on the connection between memory and hearing. This might come as a surprise, but recent studies show that the connection between memory and hearing is extremely strong and important to keeping our memories and mind sharp. Research has consistently shown that a healthy mind depends largely on healthy hearing.
In order to understand how treating hearing loss is extremely important, we must review how the process of human memory works.
How human memory works
There are no single areas of the brain we can designate as the only location where memory storage occurs. It is extremely widespread, which adds to the complexity and intracy of the process itself.
Memories exist due to electrical and chemical signals involving billions of neurons. There are countless connections between these neurons that result in the creation and storage of memories. Because of this, a portion of the memory process is not fully understood and will most likely never be.
What we do know is that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
Encoding, the first stage of the process, happens when you pay attention to a stimulus in the environment. This stage occurs simultaneously with filtering. Filtering exists to rid our minds of insignificant information in order to make room for important information that we plan on storing. If not, your brain would attempt to store every single bit of information you were exposed to on a daily basis. This would result in our brain being filled to capacity very quickly.
The next stage is memory storage. This stage has to do with our short-term or working memory. This type of memory can hold about seven pieces of information for 20-30 seconds. Because this is not a large amount of information, we can expand this capacity through several techniques, such as chunking which is breaking long strings of numbers into groups, or by using mnemonic devices.
Information stored in short-term memory is either stored and kept in long-term memory or is completely lost. In order to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory, you must utilize three things: attention, repetition, and association. Our ability to remember information will improve if you become:
- less distracted and more focused on the information.
- exposed to the information frequently and repeatedly.
- able to associate the new information with already existing information that you have stored.
Retrieval is the third and final stage of memory. Although this stage does not have to do with the physical storing of information, it is extremely important in the whole process. This stage allows you to willingly recall information that you have stored in long-term memory. The better the information is encoded and stored initially, the easier it will be to recall later on.
How growing older affects memory
In order to understand the effects that growing old can have on our memory, we must keep in mind that the brain has what is called plasticity. This plasticity allows the brain to change its structure in response to new stimuli that it encounters. Because we are obviously exposed to more and more things as we grow older, our brain tends to change in response. This characteristic of our brain can be both positive and negative for the future of our mental health.
As we age, our brain loses some cells, some connections between cells, and generally shrinks in size. The changes that occur are not just chemical, but are also physical and they can impair our memory and general cognitive function.
However, the plasticity of our brains also means that we are able to create new connections as we age. The stimuli that we are exposed to on a daily basis allows us to strengthen our memories as we simultaneously learn new things. This type of brain stimulation and exercise has been proven in many studies to keep our minds sharp well into our 80s.
The reason our memory declines as we grow older is largely due to lack of use. This is why keeping our minds active and learning new things is essential if we plan on aging as healthily as possible.
How hearing loss affects memory
So can hearing loss actually affect our memory?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can actually impact your memory greatly, and it’s not difficult to see why. We’ve already made it clear that your ability to store stimuli in long-term memory is dependent on your ability to pay attention to the information.
Let’s prove this with an example. For instance, say you are having a conversation and experiencing hearing loss. As this occurs, two things are simultaneously happening. First, you’re not able to hear parts of what is being said, so your brain is not able to successfully encode the information in the first place. Later, when you try to recall the information, you can’t.
Second, you have to devote mental resources to trying to figure out meaning through context because you’re only hearing a portion of what is being said. As you attempt to understand the meaning of what is being said, most of the important information that you wish to store is either distorted or lost.
On top of it all, the brain has been proven to reorganize itself in those who experience hearing loss. The part of the brain responsible for sound processing becomes weaker due to the reduced sound stimulation. People with sharp hearing do not experience this type of weakening of the brain and therefore stay much more cognitively able.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
We have made solution to improving our memories as we age clear. Firstly, we must challenge ourselves and learn new things as regularly as possible in order to keep our mind engaged and active.
Secondly, we must take care of our hearing and treat our hearing situation as best as we can. We can better encode and remember information when our hearing is enhanced by hearing aids. This enhanced sound stimulation is extremely helpful, especially in conversations on a daily basis. In addition, the enhanced sound stimulation to the parts of the brain responsible for sound processing makes sure that these areas stay strong and as responsive as possible.
So forget about the ever popular 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.