Twentieth-century neuroscience has discovered something utterly astonishing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was thought that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now understand that the brain reacts to change all throughout life.
To appreciate how your brain changes, think of this analogy: envision your typical daily route to work. Now picture that the route is obstructed and how you would react. You wouldn’t just give up, turn around, and return home; rather, you’d look for an alternate route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would become the new routine.
Comparable processes are happening in your brain when a “regular” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for learning new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier behavior. Eventually, the physical changes to the brain match to the new behaviors and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
However, while neuroplasticity can be useful, there’s another side that can be destructive. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a favorable impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the opposite effect.
Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing
Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As covered in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the portion of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the interconnection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the areas of our brain responsible for other functions, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized areas of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this reduces the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our capability to comprehend language.
Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not only because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s partially caused by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help You
Similar to most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s ability to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the impacts of hearing loss, it also increases the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can shape new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. That means increased stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain responsible for 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 determined that utilizing hearing aids curbs cognitive decline in people 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 time 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 used hearing aids exhibited no difference in the rate of cognitive decline when compared to those with normal hearing.
The beauty of this study is that it verifies what we already understand concerning neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it is provided with.
Maintaining a Young Brain
In conclusion, research illustrates that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or lessen this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve much more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can enhance your brain function irrespective of age by participating in challenging new activities, keeping socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other techniques.
Hearing aids can help with this as well. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by utilizing hearing aids, you can make sure that you continue being socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.