Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something truly astonishing: namely that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. While in the early 1900s it was thought that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now know that the brain reacts to change all throughout life.
To appreciate how your brain changes, think of this comparison: imagine your normal daily route to work. Now picture that the route is blocked and how you would react. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and go back home; instead, you’d look for an different route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would emerge as the new routine.
Comparable processes are going on in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing down new paths, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for mastering new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier behavior. After some time, the physical changes to the brain match to the new behaviors and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
However, while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, 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 one example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As discussed in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the portion of the brain committed to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is believed to illuminate the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the regions of our brain in charge of other functions, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized segments of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this decreases the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our capacity to comprehend language.
Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not simply 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
Similar to most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s ability to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the impacts of hearing loss, it also enhances the performance of hearing aids. Our brain can produce new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural pathways. That means 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 recently published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society uncovered that wearing hearing aids reduces 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, 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 normal hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who made use of hearing aids demonstrated no difference in the rate of cognitive decline 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 in accordance to its requirements and the stimulation it is provided with.
Maintaining a Young Brain
In conclusion, research shows 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 accomplish much more than that. As stated by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can enhance your brain function regardless of age by engaging in challenging new activities, keeping socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other practices.
Hearing aids can help here as well. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by using hearing aids, you can make sure that you continue being socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.