Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something utterly astonishing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. Whereas in the early 1900s it was concluded that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain responds to change all through life.
To appreciate how your brain changes, think of this analogy: visualize your normal daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is obstructed and how you would behave. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and go home; rather, you’d look for an substitute route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would emerge as the new routine.
Identical processes are taking place in your brain when a “regular” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for grasping new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier habits. With time, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be advantageous, there’s another side that can be dangerous. 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 an example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As explained in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the part of the brain committed to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with beginning-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the areas of our brain in charge of other functions, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-utilized segments of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this decreases the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our capability to understand speech.
Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, 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
Like most things, there is a both a negative and a positive side to our brain’s ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the impacts of hearing loss, it also boosts the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can form new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural pathways. 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 newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society uncovered that wearing hearing aids inhibits 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 time period. The study found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher in those with hearing loss as compared to those with normal hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who utilized hearing aids exhibited no difference in the rate of cognitive decline when compared to those with normal hearing.
The beauty of this study is that it concurs with what we already know regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it gets.
Keeping Your Brain Young
In summary, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself throughout life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or minimize this decline.
But hearing aids can accomplish even 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, keeping socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other practices.
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 stay socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.