Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something rather amazing: namely that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. While in the early 1900s it was thought that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain responds to change all throughout life.
To appreciate exactly how your brain changes, consider this analogy: visualize your ordinary daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is blocked and how you would react. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and return home; rather, you’d find an alternate route. If that route turned out to be even more efficient, or if the original route remained restricted, the new route would emerge as the new routine.
Comparable processes are manifesting in your brain when a “normal” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing down new paths, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for learning new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier behavior. With time, the physical changes to the brain match to the new behaviors and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be useful, there’s another side that can be hazardous. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a favorable impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the reverse effect.
Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As covered in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the segment of the brain devoted to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with early-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the areas of our brain responsible for other capabilities, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-used areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capacity to comprehend speech.
So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not just because of the damage to your inner ear—it’s partially brought about by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help You
Similar to most things, there is a both a negative and a positive side to our brain’s natural ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also increases the performance of hearing aids. Our brain can create 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 revealed that using 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 as compared to those with healthy hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who used hearing aids showed no difference in the rate of cognitive decline compared to those with normal hearing.
The appeal 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 receives.
Keeping Your Brain Young
In summary, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can hasten cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or minimize this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve a lot more than that. As stated by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can boost your brain function irrespective of age by partaking in challenging new activities, remaining socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other methods.
Hearing aids can help here too. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by using hearing aids, you can ensure that you continue being socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.