Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something quite amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was presumed that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain reacts to change throughout life.
To appreciate exactly how your brain changes, think of this comparison: imagine your normal daily route to work. Now suppose that the route is blocked and how you would respond. You wouldn’t simply surrender, turn around, and go back home; rather, you’d look for an alternate route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained closed, the new route would become the new routine.
Equivalent processes are going on in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new pathways, and this re-routing process is regarded as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity comes in handy for grasping new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier behavior. As time goes by, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new behaviors and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
But 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 Loss of Hearing
Hearing loss is an example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As covered in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the part of the brain devoted to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the interconnection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the portions of our brain responsible for other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our capability to understand speech.
So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not just because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s partly caused by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help
Like most things, there is a both a negative and a positive side to our brain’s potential to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also expands the performance of hearing aids. Our brain can build new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. That means increased stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain in charge of hearing will promote growth and development in this area.
In fact, a recently published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society uncovered that using 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 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 concurs with what we already know regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its needs and the stimulation it gets.
Keeping Your Brain Young
In summary, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that utilizing 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 engaging in challenging new activities, keeping yourself socially active, and practicing 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 wearing hearing aids, you can make sure that you continue being socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.