Because we all aim to stay mentally sharp as we grow older, games that train your brain have become so popular in recent years. These games promise to preserve our mental function and claim to even better our memories.
But can we be so sure that these games are actually effective? We will save that debate for another time, but it is safe to say that the most recent research isn’t promising. These games have actually failed many scientific tests.
So if these games are not as effective as once believed, where can you turn to better your memory as you grow old? One very important aspect of memory is the relationship between memory and hearing. Recent studies have shown that this connection is stronger than what was initially thought. Research has actually continually shown the importance of strong hearing to a strong memory.
Let’s take a second to review how human memory works. By examining this, we are able to see how treating hearing loss is one of the most successful ways to better your memory.
How human memory works
Human memory is an extremely complex process. It occurs across the entire brain, and there is not one single area of the brain we can point to as being the single location where memories are stored.
Electrical and chemical signals are sent across the brain involving billions of neurons and trillions of connections between these neurons. These signals are responsible for creating memories and creating memory storage. Needless to say, memory is very intricate and not fully understood.
However, what we do understand is that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
When you pay attention to something in the environment around you, you are experiencing the process of encoding. The attention that is paid to the stimuli aids in filtering out insignificant information, which allows you to focus in on what is important. If this process of filtering did not occur, your brain would store every stimulus you were exposed to. This would lead to your memory quickly filling to capacity.
After encoding, the process of memory storage takes place. Your short-term memory, also known as your working memory, has the ability to hold about seven pieces of information for around 20-30 seconds. Although this does not seem like a large amount of information, you can expand this capacity through several techniques. These techniques include using mnemonic devices or utilizing a technique called chunking, which is breaking long strings of numbers into groups.
Information stored in short-term memory either fades away or is transported into your long-term memory. In order for the movement of information to be successfully transferred, you must practice attention, repetition, and association. In order to improve your memory of any piece of information, you must:
- Be less distracted when processing the information you intend to store.
- Be exposed to the stimulus more frequently and for longer periods of time.
- Be able to associate the new information with information you have previously stored.
The last stage of memory is retrieval. This stage occurs when you are able to willingly recall information that has been stored in long-term memory. The better the information was initially stored, the easier it will be to recall later on.
How growing older affects memory
We must keep in mind that the brain has a characteristic called plasticity. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change its structural form in response to new stimuli that it is exposed to. The plasticity of the brain can have both positive and negative effects on memory.
As we age, our brain changes not only structurally, but also chemically. It loses some cells, some connections between cells, and generally shrinks in size. These chemical and structural changes can impair our memory and cognitive function as we grow old.
However, on the other hand, the plasticity of our brain can also affect us positively. It allows us to create new connections as we age. This helps us learn new things which strengthens our memories at the same time. In fact, studies have shown that exercise and mental stimulation can keep our brains sharp well into our 80s.
The biggest culprit of memory decline as we grow older is simply lack of use. That’s why it is essential to keep our minds active and learn new things.
How hearing loss affects memory
When it comes to hearing loss, can it actually affect your memory?
Studies have consistently shown that hearing loss can actually in fact your memory greatly, and it’s easy to see why. We’ve already shown that your ability to store information in long-term memory is dependent on how well you pay attention to the incoming stimuli.
So let’s say you’re having a conversation with someone. When you experience hearing loss, two things are happening at the same time. One, you’re simply not able to hear what is being said due to your impairment, so your brain is never able to properly encode the information in the first place. Later on, when you attempt to recall the information, you are unable to do so, or the information is recalled incorrectly.
Second, because only a portion of what is being said is being processed, you have to use mental resources to try to figure out meaning through context, resources that would usually be used for other processes. As you struggle to understand the meaning of what is said, most of the information is distorted or lost.
To top off the effects of hearing loss, the brain has been proven to reorganize itself in those with hearing impairment. This is due to the reduced sound stimulation that is received. This leads to the part of the brain responsible for sound processing to become weaker. This leads the brain to recruits this area for other tasks.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
From what has been discussed so far, the solution to improving our memories as we age seems quite simple. First, we need to keep our minds as active as possible, challenging ourselves daily and learning new things.
Second, and just as important, is taking the proper steps to improve and treat our hearing. The enhancement of sound stimulation with hearing aids helps us to better encode and remember information. This can be extremely helpful in daily events like conversations. The enhanced sound stimulation strengthens the areas of the brain that are responsible for processing sound and makes sure that these areas stay strong.
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.