Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

Twentieth century neuroscience has uncovered something really astonishing: namely that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. While in the early 1900s it was accepted that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now recognize 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 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 look for an alternate route. If that route turned out to be even more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would emerge as the new routine.

Equivalent processes are going on in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is described as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity comes in handy for mastering new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier habits. With time, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits and once-challenging 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 Hearing Loss

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

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

Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” frequently, it’s not simply because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s partially 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 effects of hearing loss, it also elevates the performance of hearing aids. Our brain can create new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain in control of 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 curbs 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, observed 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 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 concurs with what we already know about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it is provided with.

Maintaining a Young Brain

To summarize, research illustrates that the brain can change itself all through life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or minimize this decline.

But hearing aids can accomplish a lot more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can improve your brain function regardless of age by partaking in challenging new activities, continuing to be socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other techniques.

Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss has a tendency 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 stimulate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.

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