Does Hearing Loss Make It Harder To Remember Things?

Do you sometimes meet a new person but forget his or her name almost immediately or hear the specials at a restaurant only to have trouble recalling them when it is time to order? And forget about directions — was that two lefts and a right or two rights and then a left? This happens to me quite a bit. If I read something or hear it and immediately write it down, I do better, but if I hear something in the absence of other stimuli or activity, I have a harder time remembering it. Now I know why.

Living With Hearing Loss |

I recently attended a presentation for improving museum experiences for people with hearing loss. It was a great session which helped build awareness of accommodation options (i.e., FM systems, CART to smartphones, etc.) that can work well in a museum setting. There were several excellent speakers, one of whom was an audiologist.

She advised the museum personnel to speak more slowly if they have a person with hearing loss in their tour groups and to expect more questions. “People with hearing loss remember verbal information less well,” she said. “They are working so hard to hear, that there is less immediate brain capacity left over for remembering.” Yup.

I found her advice so fascinating that I decided to do some research to see if her comments were based on anecdotal evidence or if someone had scientifically studied this problem. It turns out there is scientific proof that people with hearing loss have trouble with short term memory. The culprit is cognitive load, which is defined as the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory.

In a 1995 study published by the Acoustical Society of America, researchers studied the ability of young and old adults to listen and remember speech in noise. They found that when hearing conditions were more challenging (either because of impaired hearing or a noise condition or both), word recall suffered. Here is a quote from the paper.

“The results were interpreted as supporting a processing model in which reallocable processing resources are used to support auditory processing when listening becomes difficult either because of noise, or because of age‐related deterioration in the auditory system. Because of this reallocation, these resources are unavailable to more central cognitive processes such as the storage and retrieval functions of working memory, so that ‘‘upstream’’ processing of auditory information is adversely affected.”  

In other words, when it is harder to hear something, there is so much processing that is happening in order to just hear, there isn’t much capacity left over for remembering. Welcome to the world of hearing loss.

Now that we  know about this problem, is there anything we can do to improve our ability to remember speech in difficult listening conditions? Here are my suggestions. Please share yours in the comments.

1. Get lots of rest: If you know you will be doing some heavy listening, be sure to arrive well rested and well fed. The stronger your body and mind are upfront, the better cognitive power you will have in the moment.

2. Reduce extraneous noise and distractions: This is not always possible, but making the listening situation easier will boost our ability to remember what we hear.

3. Write it down: Research shows that students retain more information when they take handwritten notes versus electronic ones as the physical movements stimulate different cognitive processes. Perhaps jotting down a new person’s name or an important detail in a lecture can help with memory.

In the end, anything that reduces the clutter in our working memory will help us to remember what we hear and process it more effectively in real time.

Readers, do you think your hearing loss has impacted your short term memory?

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38 thoughts on “Does Hearing Loss Make It Harder To Remember Things?

  1. This is definitely an issue with me. I’ve noticed it most when I’m on the phone, making an appointment with someone. I have my digital calendar in front of me, I’m reading my captioned phone – and I need to write the appointment down. I theoretically should be able to just key it into my calendar – but I can’t keep it in my head long enough while I’m finishing the conversation.
    I thought it was old age – makes me feel a little better about it!

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  2. Shari, you described my experience to a “T”. I dread asking for directions to some place. I know I will not remember them completely. As you know, I am coming up on 5 months post activation for my CI. Talk about cognitive overload! All those cognitive assets that could be used to “get” directions, remember where my phone is or even know why I just walked down to the cellar are being sucked up just trying to deal with this appliance buried in my head. Of course, practice in simple paying attention is part of my aural rehabilitation and as such should help improve matters. Focusing one’s attention is harder to do than I ever dreamed it would be. If there are distractions of any kind it’s almost always a loosing game. Even the energy it takes to focus on the speaker’s face reallocates resources that could be used for understanding and or remembering. Practice may not make it perfect, but surely it makes it better. And here we go.

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  3. That is so interesting Shari! I would never have connected the two together. I don’t generally have trouble hearing people talk but if there is outside noise it is a problem. I have 70% hearing loss in my right ear. I am really bad at directions and a visual learner.

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  4. Thank you so much for this……..I was beginning to think that I had some kind of memory problem not related to my hearing impairment

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  5. Erm….. What was the question again?
    Enlightening article, Answers quite a few questions re my own experiences.
    You know what? The more I hear about these obstacles in front of a deaf person the more I think we are really superheroes in disguise.

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  6. Oh, how I can relate! I love reading your writings, Shari. I am always reminded to keep looking forward, and to the positive. It’s also fascinating to learn about the why’s and how’s of what is going on and to be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

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  7. This makes perfect sense to me. I have a very good memory and no hearing loss, but if there is noise or too much distraction when I’m “listening,” I can’t comprehend well enough to “see” it in my mind–and have a much harder time remembering later. Fascinating topic!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Shari, this is a fascinating article.
        I am an interpreter, and so I use my listening skills pro-actively to process the source language; what is being said into, what is meant by what is being said, (not always the same thing!) and then rendering the source language into the target language.
        I have often wondered if this type of cognitive strain on the interpreters’ brain affects the other cognitive capacities such as memory ?
        Have you ever come across this sort of question before?

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  8. Hello Shari,

    This was a very interesting thing to read. Have you noticed this difference with videos/podcasts vs. written content? Is the information spoken in videos or podcasts harder to remember than information you’ve read (on blogs etc.)?

    Thank you for sharing this!

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    • Written content is usually easier for me to absorb, but if there are no other distractions and the video is very easy to hear, I can remember that as well. It really comes down to cognitive load for me. Thanks for your interest!

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  9. I totally identify with this. When doing some post grad training as an Occupational therapist, we did an exercises where we listened to a few numbers and then had to recite them in reverse order. I could NOT do it, no matter how hard I tried. I am profoundly deaf and lipread, and we figured that hearing people hear the numbers, shunt them to the processing part of their brain to reverse them, and then they can recite them in reverse order. But because I was lipreading, the processing part of my brain was being used to process what I was seeing, and could not handle reversing the numbers mentally! Have been interested in the processes used for lipreading ever since!

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  10. I have worked in a Hearing Centre for over ten years. The Audiologists do Central Auditory Processing testing on children – of course if the child does have a hearing loss they already have CAP disorder so we wouldn’t test them. Forgot to remember that this would also apply to me! No wonder I had such trouble remembering everything said during the day in such a busy place… not so stupid after all.

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