Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

Twentieth-century neuroscience has discovered something really astonishing: namely that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was accepted that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain responds to change all throughout life.

Neuroplasticity

To understand exactly how your brain changes, consider this comparison: envision your normal daily route to work. Now suppose that the route is blocked and how you would react. You wouldn’t just give up, turn around, and return home; instead, you’d find an substitute route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained closed, the new route would emerge as the new routine.

Comparable processes are going on in your brain when a “regular” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is useful for mastering new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier habits. As time passes, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits and once-difficult tasks become automatic.

Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be useful, 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 opposite effect.

Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a good example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As discussed in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the segment of the brain devoted to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is believed to explain the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the portions of our brain in charge of other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-used areas of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this lowers 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?” a lot, it’s not only because of the damage to your inner ear—it’s partially caused by the structural changes to your brain.

How Hearing Aids Can Help You

Like most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s potential to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the effects of hearing loss, it also heightens the effectiveness of hearing aids. Our brain can create new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain responsible for 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 wearing hearing aids inhibits 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 healthy 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 concurs with what we already understand regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its requirements and the stimulation it is provided with.

Keeping Your Brain Young

To summarize, research illustrates that the brain can change itself throughout life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or reduce this decline.

But hearing aids can accomplish a lot more than that. According to brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can improve your brain function regardless of age by participating in challenging new activities, remaining socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other practices.

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 ensure that you continue being socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.

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