Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

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

Neuroplasticity

To appreciate how your brain changes, imagine this comparison: visualize your normal 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 go back home; rather, you’d look for an substitute route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would become the new routine.

Comparable processes are happening 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 comes in handy for learning new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier behavior. As time passes, 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 dangerous. 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 covered in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the portion 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 association between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the parts of our brain in charge of other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized areas of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this reduces the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our capability to comprehend 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

Like most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s ability to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the effects of hearing loss, it also boosts the effectiveness of hearing aids. Your brain can form new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural pathways. That means increased stimulation from hearing aids to the portion 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 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, observed 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 as compared to those with healthy hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who used hearing aids showed 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 know regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its requirements and the stimulation it obtains.

Maintaining a Young Brain

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

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

Hearing aids can help with this as well. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by using hearing aids, you can ensure that you remain socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.