Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

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

Neuroplasticity

To understand 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 respond. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and go back home; instead, you’d look for an substitute route. If that route turned out to be even 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 obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is defined as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is useful for grasping new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier behavior. As time passes, the physical changes to the brain match to the new behaviors and once-difficult tasks become automatic.

But while neuroplasticity can be useful, there’s another side that can be hazardous. 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 Loss of Hearing

Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As described 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 early-stage hearing loss. This is believed to clarify 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-used areas of the brain responsible for hearing. Because this reduces the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our ability to comprehend speech.

Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not simply because of the damage to your inner ear—it’s partially caused by the structural changes to your brain.

How Hearing Aids Can Help

Similar to most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s capacity to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the impacts of hearing loss, it also expands the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can grow new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. 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 newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society uncovered that utilizing hearing aids minimizes cognitive decline in people 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 compared to those with normal hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who utilized hearing aids exhibited no difference in the rate of cognitive decline when compared to those with normal hearing.

The beauty of this study is that it concurs with what we already understand about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it is provided with.

Keeping Your Brain Young

To summarize, 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 limit this decline.

But hearing aids can accomplish even more than that. As stated by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can improve your brain function regardless of age by partaking 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 effect. But by wearing hearing aids, you can ensure that you remain socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.

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