Twentieth century neuroscience has discovered something really amazing: namely that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. Whereas in the early 1900s it was accepted that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now are aware that the brain responds to change throughout life.
To appreciate how your brain changes, consider this comparison: imagine your ordinary daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is obstructed and how you would respond. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and go home; instead, you’d find an different route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the original route remained closed, the new route would emerge as the new routine.
Equivalent processes are manifesting in your brain when a “regular” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing down new paths, and this re-routing process is described as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for figuring out new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier habits. After a while, the physical changes to the brain match to the new behaviors and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
But while neuroplasticity can be advantageous, there’s another side that can be detrimental. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a positive impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the opposite effect.
Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As described in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the part of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with beginning-stage hearing loss. This is thought to explain the association between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the portions of our brain responsible for other capabilities, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-utilized areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this decreases the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our capability to understand speech.
So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not simply because of the damage to your inner ear—it’s partly caused 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 capacity to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the effects of hearing loss, it also heightens the effectiveness of hearing aids. Your brain can build new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the portion 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 wearing hearing aids inhibits 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 period. The study discovered 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 made use of hearing aids showed 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 know regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it gets.
Maintaining a Young Brain
In conclusion, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can hasten cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.
But hearing aids can accomplish a lot more than that. As stated by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function regardless of age by participating in challenging new activities, keeping yourself socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other approaches.
Hearing aids can help here as well. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by utilizing hearing aids, you can make sure that you stay socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.