One of the most important aspects of aging seems to be staying mentally sharp. The importance of remaining cognitively capable is on the minds of so many and because of this, brain training games have become very popular recently. The games promise to preserve our mental ability and also help to sustain our memories which makes them very appealing.
The effectiveness of these games have been studied in recent years, and it is suffice to say that the latest research isn’t reassuring for the brain games. They have consistently failed scientific tests that show the promise of helping our brains may not be true.
Now that brain training games have been deemed ineffective, where should you turn to ensure your brain stays as sharp as possible? Research has shown us time and time again the importance of healthy hearing to a healthy memory. This has largely to do with the connection between memory and hearing. When first studied, no one understood just how strong this connection truly is.
When trying to improve and sustain your ability to remember, it is necessary to understand how memory works in the first place. For that reason, we will review the process of human memory.
How human memory works
Human memory is extremely widespread across the brain. Because this contributes largely to the complexity of the process, it has yet to be fully understood. This is because there is no single area of the brain that we can designate as the one location where memories are stored, which means we do not have the ease of studying just one area thoroughly. Rather, we must examine all parts of the brain.
Electrical and chemical signals are responsible for the memories stored in our brain. These signals are all interconnected with the help of billions of neurons. The vast amount of connections and abundance of information that is still unknown about memory results in researchers not fully understanding the process.
Despite the many unanswered questions researchers have, we do know that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
The first stage of encoding occurs every day as you take in information from the environment around you. This process utilizes filtering, which gets rid of unimportant information and retains significant information. After the information is filtered out, you can then focus on what’s important. Without this, your brain would try to store every stimulus you were exposed to which would lead to an abundance of information. With this overflow of information, your memory would quickly fill to capacity.
Memory storage occurs after encoding. This stage occurs as you attempt to make short-term memories become long-term memories. Your short-term memory can hold about seven pieces of information for 20-30 seconds. This seems like a small amount of information but luckily you can expand your capacity to remember things. This happens with the help of several techniques, such as chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups, for example) or by using mnemonic devices.
Information stored in short-term memory is either lost, or it is transferred into long-term memory. In order to get the information into long-term memory, there are three necessary steps you must take. These keys are attention, repetition, and association. When you put these into action, you become:
- less distracted and more focused on the information in the environment.
- exposed more frequently to the information and for longer periods of time.
- able to associate the new information with preexisting information.
When you are able to willingly recall information that you stored in long-term memory, you are putting the retrieval stage into action. The better the information was encoded and stored in the first place, the easier the stage of retrieval will be.
How growing older affects memory
Plasticity referrs to the brain’s ability to change its structure in response to new stimuli. This characteristic is extremely important to keep in mind as we examine how the brain changes as we age. This kind of change that the brain undergoes can be both good and bad.
As we age, our brain changes both structurally and chemically. It loses cells, loses connections between cells, and even has the ability to shrink in size. These changes can have negative effects such as worsening our memory and impairing our general cognitive function.
The plasticity of our brains, however, also means that we are able to build new connections. These connections can help us learn new things and simultaneously strengthen our memories and our mind. Many studies have shown that mental stimulation and exercise can keep our minds as strong as possible.
To put it simply, lack of use is the main culprit for memory loss. This makes sense once we understand that keeping our minds active and learning new things is an essential part of healthy aging.
How hearing loss affects memory
When it comes to hearing loss, can it actually affect our memory?
There have been many studies to support the idea that hearing loss affects your memory. We’ve already explained how your ability to store information in long-term memory is largely related to your ability to hear and pay attention to the stimuli you encounter.
When having a conversation with someone while experiencing hearing loss, for example, two things are happening. One, you’re not able to hear part of what is being said. This makes your brain unable to successfully encode the information in the first place. Later, when trying to recall the information that you attempted to store, you are unable to.
Second, because you must try and fill in the pieces of information that you missed, you have to devote mental resources to trying to figure out the meaning of what was being said. Because you are distracted and trying to understand what was previously said, most of the information ends up being lost or distorted.
Another result of hearing loss is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself in those with hearing impairment. This happens because the reduced sound stimulation makes the part of the brain responsible for sound processing to become weaker and the brain then recruits this area for other tasks.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
The solution to improving our memories as we age has clearly been shown throughout the discussion above. First, we need to maintain an active and sharp mind by challenging ourselves and learning new things as frequently as possible.
We must also take the proper steps to maintaining our hearing. This simply means getting our ears periodically checked, and possibly even investing in a hearing aid. Hearing aids can increase sound stimulation which can help us to better encode and remember information, especially during conversations. In addition, the enhanced sound stimulation that a hearing aid provides ensures that the areas of the brain that process information 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.