Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

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


To appreciate exactly how your brain changes, consider this analogy: visualize your normal daily route to work. Now picture that the route is obstructed and how you would behave. You wouldn’t simply surrender, turn around, and go back home; instead, you’d find an alternate route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the original route remained restricted, the new route would emerge as the new routine.

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

Neuroplasticity is useful for learning new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier behavior. After a while, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new behaviors 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 positive impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the reverse effect.

Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing

Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As explained in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the part of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is thought to illuminate the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the regions of our brain responsible for other capabilities, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-utilized areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this lowers the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our capacity to understand speech.

So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not simply because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s to a certain extent caused 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 potential to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the impacts of hearing loss, it also elevates the effectiveness of hearing aids. Your brain can produce new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain responsible for hearing will promote growth and development in this area.

In fact, a newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society revealed that wearing hearing aids lessens 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 discovered 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 exhibited 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 regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its requirements and the stimulation it gets.

Keeping Your Brain Young

To summarize, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or limit this decline.

But hearing aids can accomplish a lot more than that. According to brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can improve your brain function regardless of age by participating in challenging new activities, remaining socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other techniques.

Hearing aids can help with this as well. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by wearing hearing aids, you can make sure that you continue being socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.

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