Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something truly amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. While in the early 1900s it was thought that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now know that the brain responds to change throughout life.

Neuroplasticity

To understand exactly 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 just surrender, turn around, and go back home; instead, you’d find an alternate route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained closed, the new route would emerge as the new routine.

Similar processes are occurring in your brain when a “regular” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is defined as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is useful for learning new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier habits. After a while, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits 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 favorable impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the opposite effect.

Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As discussed 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 initial-stage hearing loss. This is believed to clarify the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the portions of our brain in charge of other functions, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-used areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this reduces the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our ability to understand 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 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 natural ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also boosts the effectiveness of hearing aids. Our brain can create new connections, regenerate cells, 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 recently published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society uncovered that using hearing aids curbs 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 time period. The study found 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 used hearing aids showed 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 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 all throughout life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that utilizing hearing aids can prevent or minimize this decline.

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

Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by utilizing hearing aids, you can ensure that you stay socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.