Twentieth-century neuroscience has uncovered something utterly amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. Whereas in the early 1900s it was concluded that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now recognize that the brain reacts to change throughout life.
To understand how your brain changes, consider this analogy: visualize your normal daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is blocked and how you would react. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and go home; rather, you’d find an different route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would emerge as the new routine.
Identical processes are taking place in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing down new pathways, and this re-routing process is regarded as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for mastering new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier behavior. As time passes, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
But while neuroplasticity can be useful, there’s another side that can be hazardous. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a positive impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the exact opposite effect.
Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing
Hearing loss is a good example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As discussed in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the segment of the brain devoted to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different 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 responsible for other capabilities, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-utilized segments of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our capability to comprehend language.
Therefore, 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 to some extent 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 capacity to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also boosts the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can shape new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural pathways. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain in charge of hearing will stimulate growth and development in this area.
In fact, a newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society determined that utilizing hearing aids limits cognitive decline in people 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 as compared to those with normal 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 know about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its needs and the stimulation it gets.
Keeping Your Brain Young
In conclusion, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can hasten cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or minimize this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve much more than that. As stated by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can boost your brain function irrespective of age by engaging in challenging new activities, remaining socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other methods.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by using hearing aids, you can ensure that you continue being socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.