There are many myths circling around about the use of hearing aids, for example, wearing one can make you feel old. Of course, that might be true since one in three individuals over the age of 65 have a type of hearing loss called presbycusis. So many elderly do wear a hearing aid. That’s not the end of the story, though. These days, medical researchers have proven that wearing a hearing aid will actually keep you from feeling your age. To figure out why this happens, you must know more about how the brain works.
Neuroplasticity: What is That?
Neuroplasticity is a complex word that describes how the brain adapts based on the changes around you. Consider this scenario; you spend your morning walking for exercise. Each day, you follow the same path, but one day, you notice a hole blocking your route. Do you stop walking — no, you find a way to change your route, so you can avoid the hole.
The human brain works the same way. There are nerve channels in the brain that allow you do everyday things like take a walk or read a book. When something happens to you like a stroke, for example, the brain needs to find a way to reroute those pathways through neuroplasticity. Your adaptable brain is also how you learn new skills. If you take a tap dance class, for instance, the brain develops new channels called neural pathways to accommodate what you have learned.
Most the time the adaptation works well. If a person has a stroke, the original pathways that let them walk might close down. The brain finds new neural routes so that person can relearn how to take a step.
When Neuroplasticity Fails
Hearing loss is one area where neuroplasticity causes problems. The process of hearing requires sound waves to enter through the ear canal and travel to the inner ear. Tiny hair cells there send electrical signals that the brain translates into what you hear.
When a person loses their ability to hear, whether it is due to aging, noise exposure or disease, the brain stops getting the electrical signals from the hair cells or gets fewer of them. At that point, it may decide that the area of the brain that manages the hearing is free real estate. It can start to make new pathways in that section that have nothing to do with hearing. The brain attempts to use space efficiently, but it backfires.
A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado would seem to confirm this concept. They did EEG recordings, that’s a tool that measures electrical activity in the brain, on both children and adults with various degrees of hearing loss. They found that functions like vision and touch can actually take over the part of the brain responsible for hearing.
Hearing Loss and Dementia
Scientists have already made a connection between an increased risk of dementia and hearing loss. Studies show that an older individual with hearing loss may suffer mental decline 40 percent faster than someone with healthy hearing. The brain is no longer getting signals from the ears, and it starts to decline.
It’s not clear why this happens, but it is possible that neuroplasticity is to blame there, too. The brain struggles to pick up sounds that are faint and may actually pull in resources from other critical functions like short-term memories to compensate.
Why Hearing Aids are the Hero of the Story
The problem in both of these scenarios is the brain no longer gets the electrical signals from the ears that allow it to translate sound. For many people, merely filtering sound and amplifying it with hearing aids improves the situation.
Hearing aids stimulate the brain to try to hear again. In response, it regenerates cells and creates new neural pathways. That slows the cognitive decline that leads to dementia and protects short-term memory.
Hearing aids open you up to new opportunities, too, ones that strengthen the brain and keep you young. You can hear movies, take classes and learn new things. Staying active is really the key to feeling like someone half your age. Too often, older people with hearing loss end up isolated because they can’t take part in discussions or understand what is going on around them.
Hearing aids change both how you live and how your brain functions. If you are wondering about your hearing these days, it’s time to schedule a professional hearing exam to see if hearing aids make you feel young again.