Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something rather astonishing: namely that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. Whereas in the early 1900s it was presumed that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain reacts to change all through life.
To understand exactly how your brain changes, consider this analogy: picture your ordinary daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is blocked and how you would behave. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and head home; rather, you’d look for an substitute route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the primary route remained closed, the new route would come to be the new routine.
Synonymous processes are occurring in your brain when a “normal” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is described as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity comes in handy for mastering new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier habits. With time, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
However, 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 an example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As explained 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 beginning-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the interconnection 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-utilized segments of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capacity to understand speech.
So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not only because of the injury 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 ability to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the effects of hearing loss, it also magnifies the performance of hearing aids. Our brain can create new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural pathways. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the areas 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 found that utilizing hearing aids curbs 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, followed 3,670 adults age 65 and older over a 25 year time 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 utilized hearing aids demonstrated no difference in the rate of cognitive decline when compared to those with normal hearing.
The beauty of this study is that it confirms what we already understand regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its requirements and the stimulation it gets.
Maintaining a Young Brain
To summarize, 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 limit this decline.
But hearing aids can accomplish a lot more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can enhance your brain function regardless of age by partaking in challenging new activities, keeping socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other techniques.
Hearing aids can help with this as well. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by wearing hearing aids, you can ensure that you stay socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.