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Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

Twentieth century neuroscience has discovered something really amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. While in the early 1900s it was assumed that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now are aware that the brain responds to change throughout life.


To understand how your brain changes, consider this comparison: imagine your typical daily route to work. Now picture that the route is blocked and how you would behave. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and go home; instead, you’d look for an substitute route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the original route remained restricted, the new route would become the new routine.

Synonymous 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 described as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity comes in handy for grasping 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-challenging tasks become automatic.

Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, 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 opposite effect.

Neuroplasticity and Loss of Hearing

Hearing loss is a good example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. 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 believed to explain the association between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the parts of our brain responsible for other functions, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized segments of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this reduces the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capacity to understand language.

So, 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 brought about 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 ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also expands the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can shape new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the parts 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 determined that wearing 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 time 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 showed 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 know about neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its requirements and the stimulation it is provided with.

Keeping Your Brain Young

To summarize, research shows 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 a lot more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can improve your brain function irrespective of age by partaking in challenging new activities, keeping socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other methods.

Hearing aids can help here as well. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating influence. But by using hearing aids, you can make sure that you stay socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.