Brain games promise to preserve our mental function and even our memories. Although these games have recently become popular, the growing popularity does not mean that they are as effective as once believed.
Although the debate of the effectiveness of brain games won’t be discussed here, the latest research isn’t promising for the brain training games. In fact, they failed a big scientific test.
With brain training games looking less promising, where should you look to better your memory and mind? Recently, studies have shown that memory and hearing are much more connected than initially thought, and this idea is extremely crucial in the discussion of memory. There is even research that frequently shows the importance of sharp hearing to a sharp memory.
In order to understand how important treating hearing loss is, we must review how human memory and hearing works.
How human memory works
The process of human memory is one of the most complex processes in the human body. Adding to its complexity, it is extremely widespread across the brain. There is not one location where memories are made and stored.
Memory storage occurs across the brain with electrical and chemical signals involving many neurons and even more connections between them. Because of this, memory is not nearly understood completely.
We do understand, however, that the creation of memories occurs in three different stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. These stages explain how memories are processed and ultimately kept in our brain.
Encoding is the stage that starts off the memory storage process. This initial stage occurs in response to stimuli around you in the environment. This stage allows you to filter out unimportant information and focus on what’s important. If this filtering did not occur, your brain would try to store every stimulus you were exposed to, which would lead to your memory would filling to capacity very quickly.
The next stage is the memory storage. This stage involves your short term memory’s ability to hold information that you are processing. Your short-term or working memory can hold up to seven pieces of information for about 20-30 seconds. Although this doesn’t seem like nearly enough mental storage capacity, there are several techniques to expand the amount your memory can hold. Two of these techniques are chunking (breaking long strings of numbers into groups, for example) and the use of mnemonic devices.
After the information is stored temporarily in short-term memory, it either fades away and is lost or becomes stored as long-term memory. Attention, repetition, and association are the three keys to moving information from short-term to long-term memory. In order to better your memory of any piece of information, you must:
- Become more focused and less distracted on the information.
- Expose yourself to the processed information more often and for longer amounts of time.
- Associate the information with memories you already have stored.
Memory is the final stage. This stage is the process of recalling, at will, information stored in long-term memory. In order to easily recall information, it must first be properly encoded and stored.
How growing older affects memory
We must not forget that the brain is plastic. This plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change its structure in response to new stimuli. This characteristic can have both good and bad effects.
As we age, our brain changes in more than one way. It loses connections between cells, loses cells, and it actually shrinks in size. These changes both structurally and chemically can impair not only our memory, but also worsen our general cognitive function as we age.
On the positive side of plasticity, our brain has the ability to create new connections as we age, learning new things and strengthening our memories simultaneously without much deliberate effort. In fact, studies have recently shown that simply mental stimulation and exercise can keep our brains sharp well into our 80s.
The main cause of memory decline as we age is lack of use. This is why keeping our minds active in addition to learning new things is extremely important to healthy aging. If we leave our mind without any stimulation, it will essentially disintegrate and lose its ability to function well.
How hearing loss affects memory
When it comes to hearing loss, can it actually worsen our memory?
Studies have shown that hearing loss can impact your memory greatly, and it’s easy to see why. We’ve already shown above that your ability to successfully store information in long-term memory is dependent on your ability to pay attention and properly process the informaiton you are receiving.
In order to understand, let’s take a look at how this works on a daily basis. For example, say you’re having a conversation with someone. With hearing loss, two things are happening at the same time when you are simply talking to someone. One, you’re physically unable to hear part of what is being said, so your brain cannot properly encode the information in the first place. Later on, when you try to recall the information that you attempted to store, you simply can’t.
Second, because only a part of the information is being encoded, you now are forced to devote mental resources in order to figure out meaning through context. In the struggle to understand meaning, most of the information is either lost or encoded incorrectly.
People who have hearing loss also experience the brain’s ability to reorganize itself. With reduced sound stimulation, the part of the brain responsible for sound processing becomes weaker and the brain then recruits this area for other tasks, changing the natural way the brain works.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
The solution to improving our memories as we age is clear from the discussion so far. Firstly, we must keep our minds active and sharp. By challenging ourselves and learning new things, we are able to better our mental ability.
Secondly, taking proper steps to improve hearing loss can help preserve your memory. Hearing aids help us properly encode information, avoiding the distortion and loss of information, which can then help us remember information during conversations. In addition, the enhanced sound stimulation that hearing aids produce ensures that the areas of the brain that deal with memory stay strong.
So disregard the craze of brain games—learn something new and interesting and schedule your hearing test to ensure that your hearing is the best it can be.
Hearing loss is a common concern in this country that affects 48 million people in the U.S., or, approximately, 20 percent of the entire population. The chances you know someone who has hearing loss are around 1 in 5.
For the most part, hearing loss is due to chronic exposure to loud sounds or simply the consequences of aging. For some individuals, though, hearing loss is a sign of a less common condition.
Consider six poorly understood hearing and balance disorders you should know more about.
Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV)
BPPV is dizziness caused by a collection of calcium carbonates crystals, called “ear rocks,” that form inside the inner ear. The medical name for these crystals is otoconia.
The calcium crystals typically occur due to a head injury, an infection, or similar disorders. Symptoms of BVVP include dizziness, poor balance, lightheadedness, and nausea. They may worsen with changes in head position.
BPPV can heal on its own, but there are treatment options available including head exercises designed to move the crystals out of the inner ear structures. Drug therapy is also sometimes used and, occasionally, surgery.
Labyrinthitis results from inflammation of the inner ear and hearing nerves usually related to a viral, or less commonly, a bacterial, infection. This swelling interrupts the transmission of sensory information to the brain, causing difficulties with balance, hearing, and even vision.
The treatment options include antiviral or antibacterial drugs and therapies used to control the symptoms of dizziness or nausea. If quickly diagnosed and treated, labyrinthitis usually causes no permanent damage. However, if left alone, permanent hearing loss can result.
Ménière’s disease is problem of the inner ear defined by vertigo, progressive hearing loss, ringing in the ears, and a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear.
The cause of Ménière’s disease is not well understood but it could be a combination of several factors, including poor fluid drainage of the inner ear, unusual immune response, viral infection, genetic predisposition, and head injury.
Treatment options include medications for vertigo, hearing aids for hearing loss and tinnitus relief, antibiotics to treat infections, and surgery for severe cases.
An acoustic neuroma is an unusual tumor of the hearing and balance nerves that disrupts the transmission of hearing and balance data to the brain. Although this benign tumor does not spread to other organs, it can become large enough to cause hearing loss and balance problems.
There are over 5,000 cases of acoustic neuroma annually in the US. Treatment generally includes surgical removal of the tumor or radiation. Without treatment, the acoustic neuroma can push into the brain, threatening neurological function and even life.
Autoimmune inner ear disease (AIED)
AIED is a rare-seen but progressive condition directly related to immune cells attacking the inner ear. Like most autoimmune disorders, the cause is not well understood.
Symptoms can include hearing loss, balance problems, and tinnitus. Diagnosis includes hearing tests and also blood tests to check for general autoimmune disease.
Treatment options are limited but growing, currently; they include some combination of steroids, other medications, plasmapheresis, and hearing aids or cochlear implants for hearing loss.
Otosclerosis is a condition that involves the hardening of bones in the inner ear bones. These bones are critical elements in the transmission of sound vibrations to the inner ear and then to the brain. The hardening of these bones interferes will eventually lead to slowly progressing hearing loss.
Otosclerosis tends to run in families. If one parent has the disorder, there is a 25 percent chance of the child developing it, as well; two parents have the condition that likelihood increases to 50 percent.
Treatment options for mild forms of the disease include long-term observation or hearing aids. Sodium fluoride is sometimes offered to slow the progression of the disorder. In certain situations, a surgical procedure called stapedectomy is done to remove the hardened bones and replaced them with a prosthetic device.
It’s important not to ignore symptoms of hearing loss or changes in balance. Although these conditions are not common, they are all best treated early.
Tinnitus can be baffling for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a very subjective condition, so you can’t just display to anyone what the ringing sounds like to you, how loud it the sound is, or how bothersome the tinnitus may be at any given time.
Second, there is yet to be one true, objective way to measure tinnitus. You can’t, for example, walk into the doctor’s office, get some blood drawn, and get diagnosed with the condition.
Third, we still don’t exactly understand how tinnitus works, so the medical field’s understanding of all the possible causes and treatment options remain less than ideal.
This can all be extremely frustrating for those affected, but those people should not feel hopeless. Despite the many possible reasons for frustrations, many people end up showing significant improvements in their symptoms when paired with the right treatment plan.
Throughout this article, we’ll be discussing one treatment in particular, known as Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT). This treatment option has proven to be rather effective. First, to understand how it works, you we need to go over the two parts of tinnitus.
The Two Parts of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is defined as the perception of sound when no external sound source is present. Essentially, there is a sensation of ringing when there is no “true” external ringing noise. We can then break tinnitus down into two parts:
- The actual sound – usually perceived as a ringing sound, but can also be perceived as a buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, or clicking sound.
- The emotional reaction – the perception of the loudness and character of the sound and its disruption to everyday life.
To effectively treat tinnitus, it requires addressing both parts. This essentially is the underlying rationale of Tinnitus Retraining Therapy.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
Building on what we just went over, let’s continue to break TRT down into two parts. The first part will be addressing the actual sound tinnitus produces, and the second part will be dealing with the emotional and behavioral repercussions a patient may run into while dealing with tinnitus.
Sound therapy is the use of an external sound to “mask” the internal sound of tinnitus. This treatment is proving to be very encouraging, and mitigates tinnitus on a number of levels.
Not only can the external sound can partially or completely cover the tinnitus sounds, but it can also divert the patient’s attention while the sound is being played. Doing so can provide immediate relief for the patient and reduce the effects of tinnitus dramatically.
Sound therapy can result in what is called “habituation,” where the brain is trained over time to reclassify the tinnitus as an unimportant sound that should be ignored.
The use of specialized sound minimizes the hyperactivity in the brain thought to be the underlying mechanism of tinnitus. This is called “neuromodulation.”
Sound therapy has both short-term and long-term benefits, and works on multiple levels to mitigate the severity of symptoms. Sound therapy can be delivered through special sound masking devices, headphones, and even hearing aids.
While any sound can theoretically provide the masking effect, specialized medical-grade devices deliver customized sounds or music programmed to match the characteristics of the patient’s tinnitus. Your hearing care professional can help you select the right device and sound.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
In addition to sound therapy, TRT also employs behavioral therapies that address the second, emotional component of tinnitus. In ways, this is the more critical component, as tinnitus can trigger strong emotional reactions like anxiety, depression, and anger.
Research in this area has led to some surprising conclusions. For example, studies have found no correlation between the loudness/pitch of tinnitus and patient-reported distress. Whether or not tinnitus is viewed as no-big-deal, slightly bothersome, or devastating is largely dependent on the cognitive/behavioral response of the patient.
Behavioral therapy can be delivered one-on-one or in groups, from a clinic or over the phone or internet from the patient’s home. Therapy includes education, identifying tinnitus triggers, instituting healthy lifestyle choices to mitigate symptoms, and mindfulness-based stress reduction.
Take Action and Silence Your Tinnitus
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy is effective because it leads to habituation on both fronts, both in terms of the actual sound and in terms of the emotional and behavioral responses.
While there is no known cure for tinnitus, you can mitigate the symptoms with the right plan and some perseverance. As your tinnitus is masked and the brain is trained to ignore it, you’ll be able to better cope with the sounds and improve your quality of life.
Hearing aids are as individual as the people who need them, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Get the most out of your new hearing aids by preparing for each step of the process and work with a qualified hearing care professional.
Your hearing aid journey will begin before your first hearing test; follow all these steps and be informed and ready:
Before your hearing test appointment
Three major events happen at your hearing test: your hearing care professional carefully tests your hearing, reviews the results, and will help you decide if hearing aids are a good fit for your needs. The best thing you can do before your appointment is to compile a list of questions to review with your hearing care professional.
Here are just a few of the questions you’ll need to ask:
To what extent do I suffer from hearing loss? Is it mild, moderate, severe, or profound?
Are hearing aids a viable option?
Will I need hearing aids for both ears?
Which hearing aids best fit my needs? How do I balance features with cost?
What are my financing options for hearing aids? (Private insurance, credit arrangements, state programs, etc.)
During your appointment
If the results of your hearing test come back normal, you likely don’t need hearing aids now. Nevertheless, you’ll have a baseline test with which to compare any future hearing tests.
If the results indicate that you have some level of hearing loss, and that you can benefit from hearing aids, your hearing care professional will review your options with you.
In selecting a hearing aid, there are several variables to consider. Make sure you cover these areas:
Programmability – most hearing aids are digital and programmable so that they can be programmed to match the specifications of your hearing loss. This is crucial; if someone tries to sell you a hearing instrument right out of the box with no adjustment necessary, it probably won’t work the way you want it to.
Style – hearing aids come in several sizes and styles, from models that sit behind the ear to models that fit entirely within the ear canal. You’ll want to balance price, ease-of-use, functionality, and aesthetics in making your decision.
Wireless connectivity – several hearing aid models can hook up wirelessly to compatible smartphones. That way, you can discreetly adjust volume and settings, send phone calls directly to your hearing aids, and even stream music all without any wires or the need for a separate hearing aid remote control.
Advanced features – some hearing aids come equipped with additional advanced features, like directional microphones to enhance speech, background noise reduction, environmental settings, and telecoils for clearer phone calls. You may also want to forgo some of these options and opt for a more cost-effective model.
Although this process can seem daunting at first, your trained hearing care professional is can guide you through the decision-making process. But understand that if someone tries to steer you to a decision without addressing all of your questions, this should be a red flag.
New hearing aids at home
Once you’ve selected your hearing aids and had them programmed by your hearing care professional, you’re ready to bring them home. But you should keep two things in mind.
First, don’t expect to fall in love with your hearing aids immediately. You’ll likely be hearing sounds you haven’t heard in a while, and the overall sound will just seem “off.” This is perfectly normal and, after a few weeks, will subside.
We recommend starting small at home. Try watching a movie and paying particular attention to the dialogue, engage in one-on-one conversations in a quiet room, and try listening to music and picking out or following certain instruments.
Although it probably won’t be totally comfortable initially, do try to wear your hearing aids as much of the day as possible, from day one. Put them in when you wake up, leave them in all day and take them out before bed. This will speed up the adjustment process, and after a few weeks, you’ll be glad you put in the effort.
And if things aren’t working the way you want them to after a couple of weeks, remember: we can adjust your hearing aids! If you continue to have difficulty hearing or adapting to your new soundscape, schedule a follow-up visit with your hearing care professional to fine-tune the settings.
Second, to ensure continued performance, you’ll need to properly maintain and care for your new hearing aids. This means daily cleaning, proper storage, and managing your battery supply.
The adjustment process can also be easier on you if you start with the right habits and equipment. Have a hearing aid cleaning kit, storage cases/sanitizers, and batteries on hand and ask your hearing care professional for tips to get the most out of your hearing aids.
After a short period of adjustment, you’ll be prepared to enjoy the all the benefits of better hearing. If you have any other questions about hearing aids, or the process of acquiring them, give us a call!
The connections among various aspects of our health are not always obvious.
Consider high blood pressure as an example. You ordinarily can’t perceive elevated blood pressure, and you wouldn’t feel any different than if it was normal. Internally, however, higher blood pressure can gradually injure and narrow your arteries.
The effects of damaged arteries ultimately can result in stroke, heart disease, or kidney disease, which is one of the reasons we have an yearly physical—to discover the presence of abnormalities before the serious consequences set in.
The point is, we often can’t sense high blood pressure ourselves, and often can’t immediately see the connection between high blood pressure and, as an example, kidney failure many years down the road.
But what we must understand is that every part of our body and aspect of our physiology is in some way connected to everything else, and that it is our job to preserve and promote all elements of our health.
The consequences of hearing loss to overall health
As with our blood pressure, we typically can’t detect small increments of hearing loss as it develops. And we definitely have a harder time envisioning the potential connection between hearing loss and, say, dementia years down the road.
And although it doesn’t seem as though hearing loss is immediately associated with dangerous physical disorders and cognitive decline, the science is revealing to us the exact opposite. Just as increases in blood pressure can injure arteries and cause problems anywhere in the body, hearing loss can reduce stimulation and cause damage to the brain.
In fact, a 2013 study by Johns Hopkins University discovered that those with hearing loss experienced a 30-40 percent faster decline in cognitive function compared to individuals with normal hearing. Additionally, the study also found that the rate of cognitive decline was greater as the severity of hearing loss increased.
Researchers believe there are three probable explanations for the connection between hearing loss and brain decline:
- Hearing loss can result in social solitude and depression, both of which are known risk factors for mental decline.
- Hearing loss causes the brain to shift resources away from memory and thinking to the processing of fainter sounds.
- Hearing loss is a symptom of a shared underlying injury to the brain that also impairs cognitive ability.
Perhaps it’s a combination of all three, but what’s apparent is that hearing loss is directly linked to declining cognitive function. Diminished sound stimulation to the brain changes the way the brain operates, and not for the better.
Further studies by Johns Hopkins University and other institutions have revealed further connections between hearing loss and depression, memory problems, a higher risk of falls, and even dementia.
The consequences are all associated with brain function and balance, and if researchers are right, hearing loss could very likely lead to additional cognitive problems that haven’t yet been studied.
Going from hearing loss to hearing gain
To return to the initial example, having high blood pressure can either be devastating to your health or it can be attended to. Diet, exercise, and medication (if required) can lower the pressure and maintain the health and integrity of your blood vessels.
Hearing loss can similarly create problems or can be attended to. What researchers have discovered is that hearing aids can mitigate or reverse the effects of cognitive decline by re-stimulating the brain with enhanced sound.
Improved hearing has been associated with elevated social, mental, and physical health, and the gains in hearing fortify relationships and enrich conversations.
The bottom line is that we not only have much to lose with unattended hearing loss—we also have a lot to gain by taking the steps to enhance our hearing.
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” I have been a satisfied customer of Atlanta Hearing for almost 5 years and Dr. Cohen and Dr.Chalken have solved my many hearing issues in a most professional and caring way. During that time, I even tried the Lyric aids for almost ten months before deciding the wax build up problem was hindering my hearing. At that time, I sprung for a Widex Clear 400 fusion model and have loved them for almost a year. On a recent visit to have excess wax removed by Dr. Chalken, I had the opportunity to meet the new clinical audiologist, Susie Fages and obtain her advice and wisdom on my ongoing problems. I found her personable and pleasant to do business with. I plan to continue using them as my audiologists.”