Twentieth century neuroscience has discovered something really astonishing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was assumed that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain responds to change all through life.
To understand how your brain changes, think of this comparison: envision your typical daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is obstructed and how you would react. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and go home; instead, you’d look for an different route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would emerge as the new routine.
Similar processes are occurring in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing along new pathways, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity comes in handy for learning new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier habits. Gradually, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
But 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 Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As covered in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the portion of the brain devoted to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with early-stage hearing loss. This is thought to illuminate the interconnection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the parts of our brain responsible for other capabilities, 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 capacity to understand speech.
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 brought about by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help
Like most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s natural ability to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the effects of hearing loss, it also expands the effectiveness of hearing aids. Your brain can form new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. As a result, increased 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 determined that using hearing aids minimizes 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 discovered that the rate of cognitive decline was higher in those with hearing loss 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 appeal of this study is that it confirms what we already know regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its needs and the stimulation it gets.
Maintaining a Young Brain
To summarize, research illustrates that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can hasten cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.
But hearing aids can accomplish much more than that. According to brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can improve your brain function regardless of age by engaging in challenging new activities, remaining socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other approaches.
Hearing aids can help here 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 activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.