A woman looking confused, scratching her head with questions marks in the background

As we age, one of the main goals we all want to achieve is staying mentally sharp. Because this is the focus of so many, brain training games have become a big hit. Despite the rising popularity of brain games, they have not been proven to better our mental function and our memories like they once promised.

We won’t get into the effectiveness debate here, but much of the latest research regarding these games isn’t promising. In fact, the games actually failed a big scientific test.

With brain training games looking less promising, where should you turn to keep your mind in the best shape possible? It turns out that the connection between memory and hearing is much stronger and much more important than previously thought. In fact, research continues to highlight the dependency of a healthy memory to healthy hearing.

In order to understand how improving hearing can boost your memory, let us review the process of human memory.

How human memory works

Memory is an extremely complex, widespread process across the brain. There are no single areas of the brain we can designate as the single place memory takes place.

Memories are stored in the brain with the help of signals, both chemical and structural, that include billions of neurons and trillions of connections between them. Needless to say, memory is not fully understood.

What we do know, however, is that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Encoding, the first stage of memory, occurs when you pay attention to something around you. Encoding helps to filter out unnecessary information and allows you to focus in on what’s important. Without filtering, your brain would store every stimulus you were exposed to, which would lead to your memory filling to capacity very quickly.

The stage that follows encoding is the memory stage. This stage highlights your short-term memory’s ability to store and hold information. Your short-term or working memory can hold about seven pieces of information for around 20-30 seconds. Although this capacity is generally accepted as typical, there are ways to expand the amount of storage availability you have. Two techniques such as chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups, for example) or mnemonic devices, can help you to store more memory.

When storing memories, there are two outcomes that the information faces. It is either stored in short-term memory and fades away, or it is transferred to long-term memory. The keys to successfully 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:

  1. focused on the information you want to store, and less distracted by things around you.
  2. exposed to the incoming information more often and for a longer period of time.
  3. able to form associations with information you already have stored.

The last stage is memory retrieval. During this stage, you are able to retrieve information stored in long-term memory at will. The better the information is encoded and stored, the easier it will be to recall.

How growing older affects memory

Plasticity, the brain’s ability to change in response to stimuli, must be taken into account when examining memory. This characteristic of the brain is extremely important to the brain’s processes, although it can have both a positive and negative effect.

As we age, our brain changes in many ways. It loses some cells, some connections between cells, and shrinks in size. These structural and chemical changes can change our ability to remember things and can impair general cognitive function as we grow older.

However, the plasticity of our brains can also be helpful. It can aid us in creating new connections as we age, learning new things and strengthening our memories at the same time. In fact, studies have shown that exercise and mental stimulation can keep our brains remain sharp well into our 80s.

Keeping our minds active and learning new things is an essential part of healthy aging because the main reason our memory begins to fail is due to lack of use of the brain.

How hearing loss affects memory

In regards to hearing, can hearing loss actually affect our memory?

Hearing loss has been proven in many studies to affect your ability to hear, and it’s easy to see why. We’ve already shown that your ability to store information in long-term memory is largely dependent on your ability to pay attention.

Two things are happening when having a conversation and experiencing hearing loss. One, Because you are unable to hear part of what is being said, your brain is never able to properly encode the information. Later, when you need to recall the information, you can’t because it was never successfully stored in the first place.

Second, because you’re only hearing part of what is being said, you must devote mental resources to trying to figure out the meaning of what is being said through the context of the conversation. In the struggle to understand meaning, most of the information is either distorted or lost.

The brain has also been shown to reorganize itself in those with hearing loss. Because those with hearing loss have reduced 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

So far, we have shown that the solution to improving our memories as we age is clear. First, we need to keep our minds sharp by exercising it as well as challenging ourselves and learning new things.

Just as important is taking the steps to improve our hearing. This can be done with hearing aids as they enhance sound stimulation. 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 ensures that these areas stay strong.

So forget 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.

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