Twentieth-century neuroscience has uncovered something utterly amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. Whereas in the early 1900s it was concluded that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain responds to change throughout life.
To appreciate exactly how your brain changes, imagine this analogy: picture your ordinary daily route to work. Now picture that the route is obstructed and how you would react. You wouldn’t just give up, turn around, and return home; rather, you’d find an different route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the original route remained closed, the new route would emerge as the new routine.
Synonymous processes are going on in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing down new pathways, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for learning new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier behavior. Eventually, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
However, while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, there’s another side that can be dangerous. 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 described in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the portion of the brain committed to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with beginning-stage hearing loss. This is thought to explain the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the areas of our brain responsible for other functions, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-used segments of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this lowers the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our capacity to understand speech.
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
Like 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 elevates the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can build new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural pathways. That means enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain responsible for 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 revealed that using 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, observed 3,670 adults age 65 and older over a 25 year period. The study found that the rate of cognitive decline was greater in those with hearing loss as compared to those with healthy hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who used hearing aids demonstrated no difference in the rate of cognitive decline compared to those with normal hearing.
The appeal of this study is that it confirms what we already understand concerning neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its needs and the stimulation it is provided with.
Maintaining a Young Brain
In conclusion, research shows that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can hasten cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve even more than that. As stated by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can enhance your brain function regardless of age by partaking in challenging new activities, continuing to be socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other methods.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by utilizing hearing aids, you can ensure that you remain socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.