Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

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

Neuroplasticity

To understand how your brain changes, consider this analogy: visualize your ordinary daily route to work. Now picture that the route is obstructed and how you would react. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and head home; rather, 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 taking place in your brain when a “regular” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing down new pathways, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.

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

However, while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, 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 Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a good example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As discussed 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 thought to clarify the interconnection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the regions of our brain in charge of other capabilities, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-used segments of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capability to understand 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 partly caused by the structural changes to your brain.

How Hearing Aids Can Help You

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

In fact, a recently published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that utilizing hearing aids minimizes 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 discovered 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 used 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 confirms what we already understand concerning neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its requirements and the stimulation it receives.

Maintaining a Young Brain

In summary, research illustrates that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or lessen this decline.

But hearing aids can accomplish a lot more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function irrespective of age by participating in challenging new activities, continuing to be socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other methods.

Hearing aids can help with this 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 stay socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.

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