Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

Twentieth-century neuroscience has uncovered something rather amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. While in the early 1900s it was accepted that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now know that the brain reacts to change throughout life.

Neuroplasticity

To understand exactly how your brain changes, consider this comparison: envision your ordinary daily route to work. Now picture that the route is obstructed and how you would behave. You wouldn’t simply surrender, turn around, and return home; instead, you’d look for an substitute route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained closed, the new route would emerge as the new routine.

Equivalent processes are happening in your brain when a “regular” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new pathways, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity comes in handy for mastering new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier habits. As time passes, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-difficult tasks become automatic.

Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, 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 opposite effect.

Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a good example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As explained in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the segment of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with beginning-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the interconnection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the regions of our brain responsible for other functions, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-used segments of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our ability to understand language.

Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not simply because of the damage to your inner ear—it’s to a certain extent brought about 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 boosts the effectiveness of hearing aids. Our brain can produce new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural pathways. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the areas of the brain in control of hearing will stimulate growth and development in this area.

In fact, a recently published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society uncovered that utilizing hearing aids limits 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, followed 3,670 adults age 65 and older over a 25 year time period. The study found that the rate of cognitive decline was greater in those with hearing loss 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 compared to those with normal hearing.

The appeal 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 receives.

Maintaining a Young Brain

In conclusion, research shows that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that utilizing hearing aids can prevent or limit this decline.

But hearing aids can achieve even 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, keeping yourself 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 influence. But by utilizing hearing aids, you can make sure that you stay socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.