Have you noticed that brain training games are really trendy right now? Perhaps it’s because people are concerned about brain focus and memory–functions that tend to decline with age. These games market themselves as a way to save mental function and memories.
Is that right, though? The truth is, we don’t want to debate the issue of brain training with you, and we know the latest research is less than positive, especially when you consider that these tests failed to meet a major scientific standard.
With the effectiveness of braining training in doubt, 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 find out why these things are important, you must first learn the specifics of how human memory works and why treating hearing loss might just give yours a boost.
How human memory works
Human memory is complex, that’s very true. Right now, what we do know is no one area of the brain identified as the place where memories are stored.
Memory 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.
We also understand that the development of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
In stage one, known as encoding, the brain focuses on environmental stimuli, or what’s going on around you. This step helps filter out the unimportant information, so you monitor what does matter. Without this initial step, the brain would store every stimulus you were exposed to and your memory would fill to capacity very quickly.
With stage two, which involves memory storage, short-term or working memory will hold 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 placed in short-term the memory will eventually either fade away and be lost or become 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.
During the third stage, or memory retrieval, you are able to recall any information stored in long-term memory. The more efficiently the information in encoded and stored, though, the easier it will be to remember.
How growing older affects memory
The brain has what scientists refer to as plasticity, meaning it can change its structure in response to new stimuli. This is both good and bad news for humans.
As you age, the brain begins to lose cells, change connections between cells, and generally shrinks in size. These structural and chemical changes effectively impair the memory and reduce cognitive function with age.
However, through brain plasticity, you create new connections as you age, so, you 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. Maintaining an active mind and learning new things is critical to healthy aging.
How hearing loss affects memory
So, why is hearing a factor in the memory equation? Can hearing loss really 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.
Think about 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
How we can improve our memories as we age seems 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 just as important, take steps necessary to enhance your 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.
Let the brain games go—instead, work to learn something new and schedule a hearing test now.