Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something truly amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was concluded that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain reacts to change all throughout life.
To appreciate exactly how your brain changes, imagine this comparison: envision your typical daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is blocked and how you would react. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and return home; instead, you’d look for an alternate route. If that route turned out to be even more efficient, or if the original route remained restricted, the new route would come to be the new routine.
Synonymous processes are going on in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing down new pathways, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for grasping new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier behavior. Gradually, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be useful, there’s another side that can be harmful. 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 Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is an example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As discussed in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the portion of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with beginning-stage hearing loss. This is believed to illuminate the association between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the portions of our brain responsible for other capabilities, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-utilized segments of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this reduces the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capability to understand speech.
So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not just because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s partially caused by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help
Similar to most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s natural ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the impacts of hearing loss, it also increases the performance of hearing aids. Our brain can form new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain in charge of hearing will stimulate growth and development in this area.
In fact, a recently published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society revealed that utilizing hearing aids lessens 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, observed 3,670 adults age 65 and older over a 25 year period. The study found that the rate of cognitive decline was greater in those with hearing loss compared to those with normal hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who utilized hearing aids demonstrated no difference in the rate of cognitive decline compared to those with normal hearing.
The beauty of this study is that it confirms what we already know concerning neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it gets.
Keeping Your Brain Young
To summarize, research shows that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve a lot more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can boost your brain function regardless of age by partaking in challenging new activities, remaining socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other approaches.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by using hearing aids, you can make sure that you remain socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.