Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

Twentieth-century neuroscience has discovered something rather astonishing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. While in the early 1900s it was believed that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now understand that the brain reacts to change throughout life.

Neuroplasticity

To appreciate how your brain changes, think of this analogy: imagine your typical daily route to work. Now suppose that the route is blocked and how you would react. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and return home; instead, you’d find an different route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the original route remained restricted, the new route would become the new routine.

Synonymous processes are happening in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing down new paths, and this re-routing process is defined as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is useful for figuring out new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier habits. As time passes, the physical changes to the brain match to the new behaviors and once-challenging tasks become automatic.

But while neuroplasticity can be advantageous, there’s another side that can be detrimental. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a positive impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the reverse effect.

Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing

Hearing loss is a good 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 different functions, even with early-stage hearing loss. This is thought to explain the association between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the portions of our brain responsible for other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-used segments of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our ability 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 damage to your inner ear—it’s to some extent brought about by the structural changes to your brain.

How Hearing Aids Can Help

Like most things, there is a both a negative and a positive side to our brain’s ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the impacts of hearing loss, it also magnifies the performance of hearing aids. Our brain can build new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. That means increased stimulation from hearing aids to the portion of the brain responsible for 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 revealed that wearing 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, observed 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 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 appeal of this study is that it concurs with what we already know concerning neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its requirements and the stimulation it receives.

Maintaining a Young Brain

In summary, 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 reduce 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 irrespective of age by engaging in challenging new activities, staying socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other techniques.

Hearing aids can help here 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 continue being socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.