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 believed that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now understand that the brain responds to change all through life.
To understand exactly how your brain changes, consider this comparison: picture your typical 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 look for an substitute route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the original route remained closed, the new route would become the new routine.
Identical processes are occurring in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing along new pathways, and this re-routing process is defined as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity comes in handy for mastering new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier behavior. After a while, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
However, while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, there’s another side that can be destructive. 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 Loss of Hearing
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 found that the portion of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with beginning-stage hearing loss. This is believed to explain the connection 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 in charge of hearing. Because this reduces 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?” frequently, it’s not just because of the damage to your inner ear—it’s partially 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 increases the effectiveness of hearing aids. Our brain can form new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural pathways. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain in control of hearing will stimulate growth and development in this area.
In fact, a newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society determined 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 discovered 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 showed no difference in the rate of cognitive decline compared to those with normal hearing.
The appeal of this study is that it confirms what we already know about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it is provided with.
Maintaining a Young Brain
In summary, research illustrates that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.
But hearing aids can accomplish much 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, continuing to be socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other practices.
Hearing aids can help with this 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 remain socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.