Twentieth-century neuroscience has uncovered something quite astonishing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was thought that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now know that the brain responds to change all throughout life.
To appreciate exactly how your brain changes, consider this comparison: imagine your ordinary daily route to work. Now picture that the route is obstructed and how you would behave. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and go back home; rather, you’d find an alternate route. If that route turned out to be even more efficient, or if the primary route remained closed, the new route would become the new routine.
Comparable processes are taking place in your brain when a “normal” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity comes in handy for learning new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier habits. Gradually, the physical changes to the brain match to the new behaviors and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
However, while neuroplasticity can be advantageous, there’s another side that can be dangerous. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a favorable impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the exact opposite effect.
Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing
Hearing loss is an example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As covered in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the segment of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with beginning-stage hearing loss. This is believed to clarify the association between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the portions of our brain in charge of other functions, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this lowers the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our ability to comprehend speech.
Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not simply because of the damage to your inner ear—it’s partially caused by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help You
Like most things, there is a both a negative and a positive side to our brain’s potential to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also increases the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can shape new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the areas of the brain in charge of hearing will promote growth and development in this area.
In fact, a newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society determined that wearing hearing aids minimizes cognitive decline in individuals with hearing loss. The study, titled Self-Reported Hearing Loss: Hearing Aids and Cognitive Decline in Elderly Adults: A 25-year Study, followed 3,670 adults age 65 and older over a 25 year period. The study found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher in those with hearing loss as compared to those with normal hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who used hearing aids exhibited no difference in the rate of cognitive decline when compared to those with normal hearing.
The appeal of this study is that it concurs with what we already know concerning neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its requirements and the stimulation it obtains.
Keeping Your Brain Young
To summarize, research illustrates that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or limit this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve much more than that. As stated by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function regardless of age by engaging in challenging new activities, staying socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other practices.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by wearing hearing aids, you can ensure that you remain socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.