Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something quite astonishing: 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 responds to change all through life.
To understand how your brain changes, consider this analogy: envision your ordinary daily route to work. Now picture that the route is blocked and how you would react. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and go back home; rather, you’d find an alternate route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would come to be the new routine.
Equivalent processes are taking place in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing down new pathways, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for figuring out new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier habits. Over time, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
However, while neuroplasticity can be advantageous, 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 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 dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with early-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the areas of our brain in charge of other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our capability to comprehend speech.
So, 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 You
Similar to most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the impacts of hearing loss, it also expands the performance 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 portion 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 utilizing hearing aids reduces 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 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 made use of hearing aids showed no difference in the rate of cognitive decline compared to those with normal hearing.
The beauty of this study is that it verifies what we already know concerning neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its requirements and the stimulation it is provided with.
Keeping Your Brain Young
To summarize, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that utilizing 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 strengthen your brain function regardless of age by participating in challenging new activities, staying socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other techniques.
Hearing aids can help here as well. 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 activate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.