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Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

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

Neuroplasticity

To understand exactly how your brain changes, think of this analogy: imagine your ordinary daily route to work. Now suppose that the route is obstructed and how you would react. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and go home; instead, you’d look for an alternate route. If that route happened to be even more efficient, or if the primary route remained restricted, the new route would become the new routine.

Similar processes are happening in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing down new paths, and this re-routing process is defined as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity comes in handy for figuring out new languages, new talents like juggling, or new healthier behavior. After some time, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits and once-difficult tasks become automatic.

But while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, there’s another side that can be destructive. 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 backfire. As discussed in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the portion of the brain devoted to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to separate functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the interconnection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the areas of our brain responsible for other functions, like vision or touch, can recruit the under-used segments of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this decreases the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our capability to comprehend speech.

So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not only because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s partially brought about by the structural changes to your brain.

How Hearing Aids Can Help You

Like most things, there is a both a negative and a positive side to our brain’s ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the impacts of hearing loss, it also elevates the effectiveness of hearing aids. Your brain can shape new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. That means enhanced 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 determined that wearing hearing aids lessens 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 greater in those with hearing loss compared to those with normal hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who used hearing aids demonstrated no difference in the rate of cognitive decline when compared to those with normal hearing.

The appeal of this study is that it verifies what we already know about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it receives.

Keeping Your Brain Young

To summarize, research illustrates that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can hasten cognitive decline, and that utilizing hearing aids can prevent or lessen this decline.

But hearing aids can accomplish even more than that. According to brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can enhance your brain function irrespective of age by engaging in challenging new activities, remaining socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other approaches.

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

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