Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something truly amazing: namely that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was assumed that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now know that the brain reacts to change all throughout life.
To understand how your brain changes, imagine this analogy: envision your typical daily route to work. Now suppose that the route is obstructed and how you would behave. You wouldn’t just give up, turn around, and go home; instead, you’d find an different route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the original route remained restricted, the new route would become the new routine.
Synonymous processes are occurring in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is regarded as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for learning new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier habits. With time, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new behaviors and once-challenging 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 reverse effect.
Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing
Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As described in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the part of the brain committed to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with early-stage hearing loss. This is believed to clarify the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the portions of our brain in charge of other functions, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-used areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capacity to understand language.
Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not simply 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 aggravates the impacts of hearing loss, it also improves the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can build new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural pathways. That means 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 found that using 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 healthy hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who made use of hearing aids demonstrated no difference in the rate of cognitive decline when compared to those with normal hearing.
The appeal of this study is that it concurs with what we already know about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its requirements and the stimulation it is provided with.
Maintaining a Young Brain
In conclusion, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or lessen this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve much more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can enhance your brain function irrespective of age by partaking in challenging new activities, keeping socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other techniques.
Hearing aids can help here as well. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by using hearing aids, you can make sure that you remain socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.