Twentieth-century neuroscience has uncovered something rather astonishing: namely that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was thought that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now recognize that the brain reacts to change all throughout life.
To appreciate how your brain changes, consider this comparison: imagine your normal daily route to work. Now picture that the route is blocked and how you would react. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and return home; rather, you’d look for an different 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.
Synonymous processes are going on in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing down new paths, and this re-routing process is regarded as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for grasping new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier habits. After a while, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new behaviors and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
However, while neuroplasticity can be advantageous, there’s another side that can be hazardous. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a positive impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the reverse effect.
Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing
Hearing loss is an example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. 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 beginning-stage hearing loss. This is believed to illuminate the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the portions of our brain responsible for other functions, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-used segments of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this reduces the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our capacity to comprehend language.
So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not just because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s partly 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 potential to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also expands the effectiveness of hearing aids. Your brain can create new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain in control of hearing will promote growth and development in this area.
In fact, a newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society uncovered that using hearing aids reduces 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 normal hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who utilized 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 verifies what we already understand about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it gets.
Keeping Your Brain Young
To summarize, research illustrates that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can hasten cognitive decline, and that utilizing hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.
But hearing aids can accomplish much more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can improve your brain function irrespective of age by engaging in challenging new activities, remaining socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other approaches.
Hearing aids can help with this as well. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by using hearing aids, you can ensure that you remain socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.