Twentieth century neuroscience has discovered something rather astonishing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. While in the early 1900s it was assumed that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now know that the brain reacts to change throughout life.
To understand exactly how your brain changes, imagine this analogy: imagine your typical daily route to work. Now suppose that the route is obstructed and how you would react. You wouldn’t just give up, turn around, and head home; rather, you’d look for an substitute route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would come to be the new routine.
Comparable processes are going on in your brain when a “normal” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing along new pathways, 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 correspond to the new behaviors 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 one example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As discussed 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 different functions, even with early-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the parts of our brain responsible for other functions, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-used areas of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this reduces the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our ability to comprehend language.
Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not only because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s partly caused by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help You
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 effectiveness of hearing aids. Our brain can grow new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural pathways. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the areas of the brain responsible for 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 those 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 time period. The study found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher in those with hearing loss as compared to those with healthy hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who made use of hearing aids demonstrated no difference in the rate of cognitive decline compared to those with normal hearing.
The beauty of this study is that it confirms what we already know about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its requirements and the stimulation it obtains.
Maintaining a Young Brain
To summarize, research shows that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or limit this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve a lot more than that. According to brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function irrespective of age by partaking in challenging new activities, keeping socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other practices.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by utilizing hearing aids, you can ensure that you continue being socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.