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

Brain training games are all extremely popular right now in part because people are conscious of their mental focus and memory–something that we all fear drops with age. These games market themselves the savior of mental function and those all too important memories.

Is all the brain training hype true, though? We don’t want to debate the pros and cons of memory games but the latest research is less than conclusive, specifically, they failed a major scientific test.

With brain training offering less promise than you might hope, what’s next for people who want to preserve their memories? What we do know is the connection between memory and hearing is bigger than most people understand. In fact, the research highlights the relationship between healthy hearing and a healthy memory.

To see the connection, you must understand how human memory works and why treating hearing loss gives yours a boost.

How human memory works

Human memory is a multifaceted and systemic brain process. There is no single area of the brain we can point to as being the one location where memories are stored.

Memories storage occurs across the brain via electrical and chemical signals that involve billions of neurons and trillions of connections. You can see why memory is not fully understood.

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

During the first stage, which is encoding, you focus more on things in the environment. This step helps filter out the unimportant information, so you focus on what’s important. Without this initial step, the brain would store every stimulus you were exposed to and your memory would fill to capacity very quickly.

Stage two is memory storage. Short-term or working memory holds 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.

Information stored in short-term memory does one of two things: it either fades away and is lost or becomes 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.

Stage three is memory retrieval, which allows you to recall any information stored in long-term memory. The more efficiently the information in encoded and stored, the easier it will be to recall.

How growing older affects memory

The human brain has what scientists call plasticity, meaning it can change its structure in response to new stimuli. This is a good news/ bad news scenario.

As a person ages, the brain loses some cells, alters connections between cells, and generally shrinks in size. These structural and chemical changes effectively impair the memory and reduce cognitive function with age.

However, brain plasticity also means you can create new connections with age, in other words, 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 with age. Maintaining an active mind and learning new things is critical to healthy aging.

How hearing loss affects memory

So, where does hearing loss fit in here? Can hearing loss actually 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.

Imagine 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

The solution to improving our memories as we age is 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 equally as important, take steps necessary to improve 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.