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Music creates powerful memories. What happens when there’s hearing loss?

Posted on July 6, 2023
Father rock guitarist having fun and and dancing with his teenage daughter at home.

Echoic memory storing music and sound memories may deteriorate with hearing loss

Memories are created by all five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – but the memories most solidly in the brain are those created by music. These memories, called “flashbulb” memories come back so intensely you can still discover details you hadn’t noticed before.

The area of the brain engaged when listening to music is the same as the region responsible for memory. As a result, listening to music can trigger memories thought lost, both pertaining to the music and to activities where music was in the background.

It’s called Echoic Memory.

Echoic Memory is short term but how often you experience a sound tells your brain how important it is and whether to store it long term memory. Listening to a favourite song over and over, creates some strong memory paths.

Your echoic memory stores not only the music and lyrics but the activities associated with the song. That’s what makes these types of memories so powerful. You get the song, the feelings and the activities around the song all coming back from familiar notes being played.

The functionality of Echoic Memory can sometimes be lost. That loss of functionality can tamper with memories. Medical conditions like stroke, brain damage, dementia and hearing loss can each contribute to loss of Echoic Memory function.

Numerous studies demonstrate the value of music to improving lives in general but particularly with dementia patients. Music memories stay accessible even after speech and language memories have deteriorated in dementia patients.

When the sound of music changes

While music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure and even pain, along with improving mood, when the listener has hearing loss, the music becomes muddled. Often the high frequency notes – from piano, flute, violin and the human voice – are missing in what is being heard.

That muddled music and flat, unaccented sound can cause frustration, aversion and turn away people who previously enjoyed music. Rather than music delivering improved mood or reduced anxiety, the effect of hearing loss works in the opposite direction.

“Often the first sounds to go in hearing loss are the high frequency ones,” explained John Tiede, Co-CEO of Hear Well Be Well and a Hearing Instrument Specialist for 40 years. “The hair cells that stimulate the nerves responsible for sending sound to the brain for interpretation live in the cochlea. Those hair cells responsible for sending the high frequency sounds to the brain are near the opening of the cochlea and are the first to get hit with sound waves. So they’re the first ones to get damaged.”

In addition to not enjoying music anymore, the brain is no longer getting the signals saying it’s the same music so the memories are not stimulated. As the part of the brain that processes music and memories stops being used, it starts to shrink. Some research has suggested this creates a greater risk of developing dementia.

Hearing loss is no joke

Untreated hearing loss doesn’t just make music sound bad. It increases your risk of developing dementia by up to five times. It increases your risk of a serious fall by up to 10 times. It impacts your relationships. It heightens the risk of developing depression.

Isolation is also a real concern. Those with untreated hearing loss may find themselves refusing invitations and declining conversations. Perhaps more unfortunate, they may also find themselves not being invited to events. They may also be intentionally excluded from conversations because those around them have become frustrated.

Hearing tests are painless

Health organizations recommend regular hearing tests, especially for those over the age of 50. Even if there are no symptoms of hearing loss, it’s good to have a baseline showing the level of hearing at a given time.

Hearing tests are painless and, at Hear Well Be Well, they’re free. Don’t miss the music, or the memories. Schedule your hearing test today.