Your Memory Can Improve With The Treatment of Hearing Loss
Brain training games promise to preserve our mental function and, more importantly, our memories. Because we all want to stay mentally sharp as we grow older, these types of games have become growingly popular.
But do these games actually help? That debate won’t be discussed here, but the latest research is not as promising as what was previously believed, in that they failed a big scientific test.
With brain training games looking less effective, where can you turn to strengthen your memory? The connection between memory and hearing is actually much stronger than anyone initially thought. In fact, research consistently shows the importance of healthy hearing to a healthy memory.
In order to understand this, we must think about how human memory works and how treating hearing loss is one of the best ways to give your memory a boost.
How human memory works
The process of human memory is brain-wide and extremely complex. There is not one single area of the brain we can point to as being the one location where memories are kept.
Memories are stored across the brain with chemical and electrical signals that involves billions of neurons and trillions of connections between these neurons. It is safe to say, memory is not fully understood.
We do know, however, that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
The first stage, encoding, occurs as you pay attention to something around you in the environment. This helps filter out insignificant information and focus on what’s actually important. If not, your brain would store every stimulus that you were exposed to, and your memory would fill to capacity.
The following stage is the memory storage. Your short-term or working memory lasts for about 20-30 seconds and can hold up to seven pieces of information. You can expand your mental capacity through many techniques, such as chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups, for example) or by using mnemonic devices.
Information stored in short-term memory can either fade away or can become stored as long-term memory. The keys to transporting information from short-term to long-term memory are attention, repetition, and association. Your memory of any single piece of information will improve as you:
- Lessen the amount of distractions and become more focused on the information you want to store.
- Expose yourself to the information more frequently and for longer periods of time.
- Associate the new information with information you already have.
The final stage is memory retrieval, where you are able to recall, at will, information stored in long-term memory. The better the information is encoded and stored, the easier it will be to recall.
How growing older affects memory
We should keep in mind that the brain has what is called plasticity, meaning it can change its structure in response to new stimuli. This can be both good and bad.
As we age, our brain does in fact change. It loses some cells, some connections between cells, and generally shrinks in size. These structural and chemical changes can impair our memory and general cognitive function as we grow older.
However, in addition to changing structurally and chemically, the plasticity of our brains allows us to create new connections as we age. This helps us learn new things and strengthen our memories at the same time. In face, studies have actually shown that exercise and mental stimulation can better our memories well into our 80s.
It’s really a lack of use that is the biggest culprit of memory decline as we age. That’s why keeping our minds active and learning new things is an essential part of healthy aging.
How hearing loss affects memory
What about hearing loss? Can hearing loss actually affect our memory?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can impact your memory, and it’s easy to see why. 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 say you’re having a conversation with someone. With hearing loss, two things are happening. One, you’re simply not able to hear part of what is being said, so your brain is never able to properly encode the information in the first place. Later, when you need to recall the information, you can’t.
Second, because you’re only hearing a portion of what is being said, you have to devote mental resources to trying to figure out meaning through context, and filling gaps and pieces of information that you missed. The struggle to understand meaning leads to most of the information being distorted or lost.
On top of it all, it has been proven that the brain can reorganize itself in those with hearing loss. With less sound stimulation, the part of the brain responsible for sound processing becomes weaker and the brain then recruits this area for other tasks.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
Thus far, it seems as if the solution to improving our memories as we age is clear. First, 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.
Second, and of equal importance, is taking the proper steps to improving our hearing. If sound stimulation is enhanced with hearing aids, this can help us to better encode and remember information, especially during conversations. And, the enhanced sound stimulation to the parts of the brain responsible for sound processing makes sure that these areas stay strong.
So forget about the 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.