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 accepted that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now recognize that the brain responds to change all through life.
To appreciate exactly how your brain changes, imagine this comparison: visualize your ordinary daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is obstructed and how you would respond. You wouldn’t just surrender, 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 closed, the new route would become the new routine.
Equivalent processes are taking place in your brain when a “normal” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing down new paths, and this re-routing process is defined as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity comes in handy for learning new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier behavior. Gradually, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
But while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, there’s another side that can be detrimental. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a favorable impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the exact opposite effect.
Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is a good example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As covered 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 beginning-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the association between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the portions of our brain in charge of other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-used segments of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this lowers the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capability to comprehend speech.
Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not just 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 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 boosts the effectiveness of hearing aids. Our brain can build new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the areas of the brain in charge of 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 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 period. The study found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher in those with hearing loss compared to those with healthy hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who made use of hearing aids exhibited no difference in the rate of cognitive decline when 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 according to its requirements and the stimulation it is provided with.
Keeping Your Brain Young
In conclusion, research shows that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can accelerate 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 enhance your brain function irrespective of age by partaking in challenging new activities, remaining socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other techniques.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by utilizing hearing aids, you can ensure that you stay socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.