Twentieth-century neuroscience has uncovered something rather amazing: namely that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was believed that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now know that the brain responds to change throughout life.
To understand exactly how your brain changes, imagine this analogy: visualize your ordinary daily route to work. Now suppose that the route is blocked and how you would behave. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and return home; rather, you’d find an substitute route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the original route remained restricted, the new route would emerge as the new routine.
Comparable processes are happening in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing down new paths, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity comes in handy for grasping new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier habits. Gradually, the physical changes to the brain match to the new behaviors and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
But while neuroplasticity can be useful, 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 an example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As explained 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 different functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is believed to illuminate the link 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 capability to understand 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 brought about by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help You
Like most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the impacts of hearing loss, it also improves the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can grow new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. That means increased stimulation from hearing aids to the portion 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 using hearing aids lessens cognitive decline in those 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 compared to those with normal hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who used 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 verifies what we already know about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its needs and the stimulation it obtains.
Keeping Your Brain Young
In summary, research illustrates that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that utilizing hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve much more than that. As stated by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can improve your brain function regardless of age by participating in challenging new activities, keeping socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other techniques.
Hearing aids can help here 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 ensure that you remain socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.