Twentieth-century neuroscience has uncovered something utterly amazing: namely that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. While in the early 1900s it was accepted that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now understand that the brain responds to change throughout life.
To appreciate how your brain changes, think of this analogy: visualize your normal daily route to work. Now suppose 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 different route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would come to be the new routine.
Comparable processes are taking place in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is defined as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for mastering new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier behavior. Gradually, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
Unfortunately, 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 opposite effect.
Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing
Hearing loss is a good example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As explained in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the portion of the brain devoted to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is believed to clarify the interconnection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the areas 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 decreases the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capacity to understand speech.
So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not only because of the damage to your inner ear—it’s to some extent 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 potential to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also enhances the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can build new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. That means enhanced 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 found that utilizing hearing aids lessens 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, followed 3,670 adults age 65 and older over a 25 year time period. The study discovered that the rate of cognitive decline was higher in those with hearing loss compared to those with healthy hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who utilized hearing aids showed no difference in the rate of cognitive decline 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 according to its needs and the stimulation it is provided with.
Maintaining a Young Brain
To summarize, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.
But hearing aids can accomplish even more than that. According to brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function irrespective of age by participating in challenging new activities, continuing to be socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other methods.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by utilizing hearing aids, you can ensure that you stay socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.