Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

Twentieth-century neuroscience has discovered something rather amazing: namely that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. Whereas in the early 1900s it was concluded that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now understand that the brain responds to change all throughout life.

Neuroplasticity

To understand exactly how your brain changes, imagine this analogy: picture your normal daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is blocked and how you would behave. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and go back home; instead, you’d find an substitute route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would become the new routine.

Similar processes are going on in your brain when a “regular” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new pathways, and this re-routing process is defined as neuroplasticity.

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

However, while neuroplasticity can be useful, 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 opposite effect.

Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing

Hearing loss is an example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As covered in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the portion of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the parts of our brain responsible for other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this decreases the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capacity to comprehend language.

So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not just because of the damage to your inner ear—it’s to some extent caused by the structural changes to your brain.

How Hearing Aids Can Help

Similar to most things, there is a both a negative and a positive side to our brain’s capacity to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also enhances the effectiveness of hearing aids. Our brain can form new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural pathways. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the portion of the brain responsible for hearing will stimulate growth and development in this area.

In fact, a newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society revealed that utilizing hearing aids limits 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 greater in those with hearing loss 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 when compared to those with normal hearing.

The beauty of this study is that it verifies what we already know regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its requirements and the stimulation it gets.

Maintaining a Young Brain

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

But hearing aids can achieve even more than that. According to brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function irrespective of age by engaging in challenging new activities, keeping 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 effect. But by using hearing aids, you can make sure that you continue being socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.

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