Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something utterly amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. While in the early 1900s it was believed that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain reacts to change throughout life.

Neuroplasticity

To understand how your brain changes, imagine this comparison: envision your ordinary daily route to work. Now picture that the route is obstructed and how you would behave. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and go home; instead, you’d look for an alternate route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the original route remained closed, the new route would emerge as the new routine.

Identical processes are going on in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new pathways, and this re-routing process is regarded as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is useful for grasping new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier behavior. Gradually, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits and once-challenging tasks become automatic.

However, while neuroplasticity can be useful, there’s another side that can be destructive. 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 Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As described in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the part of the brain committed to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the parts of our brain in charge of other functions, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this decreases the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our ability to comprehend speech.

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 to some extent brought about 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 natural ability to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the impacts of hearing loss, it also elevates the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can produce new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural pathways. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the portion of the brain responsible for hearing will promote growth and development in this area.

In fact, a recently published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society determined that utilizing hearing aids lessens 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 greater in those with hearing loss compared to those with healthy hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who made use of hearing aids exhibited 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 about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its requirements and the stimulation it is provided with.

Keeping Your Brain Young

In conclusion, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself throughout life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or limit this decline.

But hearing aids can achieve much more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function regardless of age by engaging in challenging new activities, keeping socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other practices.

Hearing aids can help here too. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by utilizing hearing aids, you can make sure that you remain socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.