Twentieth century neuroscience has discovered something quite amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. Whereas in the early 1900s it was thought that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now recognize that the brain reacts to change throughout life.
To understand how your brain changes, think of this analogy: imagine your typical daily route to work. Now picture that the route is obstructed and how you would react. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and go home; instead, you’d find an alternate route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would come to be the new routine.
Synonymous processes are manifesting in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is regarded as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for grasping new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier behavior. After a while, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new behaviors and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be useful, there’s another side that can be destructive. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a favorable 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 found that the segment of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is believed to clarify the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the parts of our brain responsible for other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized segments of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this lowers the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our ability to understand language.
Therefore, 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 partially brought about 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 expands the effectiveness of hearing aids. Your brain can shape new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural pathways. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the areas of the brain in control of 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 utilizing hearing aids limits 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, followed 3,670 adults age 65 and older over a 25 year 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 exhibited no difference in the rate of cognitive decline compared to those with normal hearing.
The beauty of this study is that it concurs with what we already understand concerning neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it gets.
Keeping Your Brain Young
In conclusion, research shows that the brain can change itself throughout life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that utilizing hearing aids can prevent or limit 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 engaging in challenging new activities, keeping yourself socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other approaches.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by wearing hearing aids, you can make sure that you remain socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.