Twentieth-century neuroscience has discovered something quite astonishing: namely that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. While in the early 1900s it was assumed that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now know that the brain responds to change throughout life.
To appreciate exactly how your brain changes, think of this analogy: visualize your typical daily route to work. Now picture that the route is blocked and how you would respond. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and return home; instead, you’d look for an different route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the original route remained restricted, the new route would emerge as the new routine.
Comparable processes are occurring in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new pathways, and this re-routing process is described as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for mastering new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier habits. Gradually, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
But while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, there’s another side that can be detrimental. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a favorable impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the exact opposite effect.
Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing
Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As discussed in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the part of the brain devoted to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with beginning-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the link 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 areas of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this decreases the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our ability to comprehend language.
So, 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 partially brought about by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help
Similar to most things, there is a both a negative and a positive side to our brain’s ability to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the impacts of hearing loss, it also enhances the performance of hearing aids. Our brain can create new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. 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 found that wearing hearing aids limits 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 greater in those with hearing loss compared to those with normal 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 concurs with what we already understand regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it obtains.
Keeping Your Brain Young
To summarize, research shows that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that utilizing hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.
But hearing aids can accomplish a lot more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function irrespective of age by participating in challenging new activities, staying socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other methods.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by wearing hearing aids, you can make sure that you continue being socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.