Hearing loss is associated with the aging process and there is a clear connection between memory and hearing. Loss of memory may be one of the first signs of hearing impairment. Because hearing difficulties develop gradually, you may notice that you are becoming forgetful before you are aware of any change in your hearing. Looking after your hearing can play an important role in keeping your memory and your brain sharp, especially during your senior years. Because of this connection between memory and hearing, it is important to understand how memory works, how aging and hearing loss both affect memory, and what steps you can take to improve your memory.
In many ways, our memories shape who we are as human beings. They tell us what we have done with our lives, what we value, whom we are connected to, and which people and experiences have impacted us along life’s journey. Memory also affects the practical side of life, like self-care, moving around the neighborhood, and knowing how to contact a loved one. Everyone forgets things occasionally, especially during times of stress and fatigue. However, memory loss is not to be taken lightly and it is one of the aspects of aging that people fear most.
How human memory works
Human memory is a complex brain process that is not fully understood. Memories are stored across all areas of the brain using multiple electrical and chemical signals involving billions of neurons and trillions of connections. Memories are created in 3 stages: During the first stage, called encoding, the brain filters out unimportant information so that you can focus on what is relevant. The second stage is storage, which involves both short-term and long-term memory. Short-term or working memory holds about 7 chunks of information for about 25 seconds. This information is then either lost or stored as long-term memory. Moving information from the short-term to the long-term memory requires attention, repetition, and association. If you are focused on specific information, exposed to it frequently, and able to associate it with information you already have, it will be more efficiently encoded and stored in your long-term memory. The third stage of creating memories involves retrieval, which allows you to recall the information stored in your long-term memory.
As people age, thinking skills such as short-term memory and the ability to process information quickly may begin to decline. This occurs because of structural and chemical changes in the brain that alter the connections between cells. Memory loss can have a significant impact on your confidence and day-to-day living and may even be misinterpreted as the onset of dementia. Fortunately, the human brain has a characteristic which scientists call plasticity, which means that it can change its structure and build new connections in response to new stimuli. An active body and a mind that is open to learning new things are critical to maintaining a healthy memory.
How can hearing loss affect memory?
Can hearing loss affect a person’s memory? To understand the answer to this question, it is important to look at the overall effect hearing loss can have on an individual. Here are a few complications of hearing loss:
Changes in the structure of the brain
With sensorineural hearing loss, the inner ear sensory cells and/or the auditory nerve responsible for sending incoming signals to the brain are impaired, and the signals get distorted. If left untreated, hearing loss can change the structure and function of the brain over time. If your ears can no longer pick up sounds, your hearing nerves will send fewer signals to your brain, thus depriving your brain of the stimulation it once had. Like an unused muscle, the part of the brain responsible for sound and speech processing will gradually weaken as the brain re-organizes itself to compensate for the hearing loss.
Brain overload and listening fatigue
We already know that storing information in long-term memory relies on your ability to pay attention. When you are experiencing a hearing loss and are only hearing part of what is being said, you will need to concentrate much more to follow a conversation. While your brain does the work of filling in the gaps; it diverts resources from other brain functions such as attention and memory. The more severe your hearing loss, the more alternative resources your brain must find to help you and the more listening effort you use. You may experience difficulty when you later try and remember the details of the conversation. You may feel like you’re unable to remember what you’ve heard but the brain has experienced overload and hasn’t even gotten as far as storing the information. The retrieval function in your brain’s memory system is unable to work effectively because the information isn’t there to process. This is one way that hearing loss can affect memory and thought processes. Even relatively mild hearing loss can cause cognitive overload, which means people can experience hearing-related memory loss without having moderate or severe hearing problems.
Stress, social isolation, and depression
The ability to hear is important in helping you understand and connect with your surroundings. You may experience anxiety and stress when you cannot hear a phone, alarm, or someone approaching you. You may also experience a sense of uneasiness when you are home alone.
People with hearing loss find communication difficult and are at risk of isolating themselves by avoiding social events and interacting with others. Your brain has much less stimulation when you distance yourself from people, which may lead to social isolation and depression. When you are not actively engaging with your surroundings, your memory function is not being exercised as often, which reduces its capacity. When it becomes time to recall information, the reduced functioning of your memory means increased forgetfulness and frustration. Studies have shown that depression can cause confusion and short-term memory loss and makes it difficult to concentrate on your routine tasks or make decisions.
Tip to improve your memory if you have a hearing loss
Although there are no guarantees when it comes to preventing memory loss or dementia, certain activities and lifestyle changes might help. The Mayo Clinic gives the following advice:
Take care of your hearing health
If your memory loss is related to poor hearing, a visit to a hearing health professional for a hearing test and appropriate treatment will certainly help you. By wearing hearing aids, you can enhance your hearing function. This prevents cognitive overload, as the brain no longer needs to work as hard to overcome the strain of listening. Your brain can process information more easily so that it is stored in your memory, ready to be recalled when it is needed.
Improving your hearing will also enable you to maintain your lifestyle and remain socially active and connected. This is important for good mental health and will reduce the risk of social isolation, anxiety, and depression associated with hearing loss and memory difficulties. By exercising your memory function and brain, your ability to interpret, store, and recall information will be better preserved. Also, the enhanced sound stimulation ensures that the areas of the brain that process sound stay strong.
If your memory loss persists or worsens, it is important to seek medical advice, since problems with memory and thought processes can be complicated and may be related to a combination of other causes.
Stay physically active
Physical activity increases blood flow to your whole body, including your brain. Even a few brisk 10-minute walks per day might help keep to your memory sharp.
Stay mentally active
Just as physical activity helps keep your body in shape, mentally stimulating activities help keep your brain and memory in shape. Keep your mind active by challenging yourself and continuing to learn new things. Brain games, such as crosswords, chess, and bridge, as well as creative outlets like painting, playing an instrument, or learning a new language, can help to maintain thinking and problem-solving skills.
Social interaction helps ward off depression and stress, both of which can contribute to memory loss. Look for opportunities to get together with loved ones, friends, and others – especially if you live alone. Making decisions, being a good listener, and having a positive attitude can help older adults with everyday memory tasks like following directions and solving problems.
Enjoy a healthy diet
A healthy diet might be as good for your brain as it is for your heart. Eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Choose low-fat protein sources, such as fish, beans, and skinless poultry. Remember that too much alcohol, as well as drug use, can lead to confusion and memory loss.
Sleep plays an important role in helping you consolidate your memories so that you can recall them later. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a day.
Manage chronic conditions
Follow your health professionals’ treatment recommendations for medical conditions, such as depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. Review your medications with your doctor regularly, as various medications can affect memory. The better you take care of yourself, the better your memory is likely to be.