Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

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


To understand exactly how your brain changes, consider this comparison: visualize your ordinary daily route to work. Now imagine that the route is blocked and how you would respond. You wouldn’t simply surrender, turn around, and go home; instead, you’d look for an alternate route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the original route remained restricted, the new route would come to be the new routine.

Comparable processes are going on in your brain when a “regular” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new pathways, and this re-routing process is regarded as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is useful for mastering new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier behavior. After a while, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-challenging tasks become automatic.

Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be useful, there’s another side that can be detrimental. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a favorable impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the reverse effect.

Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can have a negative impact. As explained 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 different functions, even with early-stage hearing loss. This is thought to explain the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

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

Therefore, 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 partly caused 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 natural ability to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the impacts of hearing loss, it also improves the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can shape new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural paths. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the areas 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 uncovered that wearing hearing aids curbs cognitive decline in those 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 time period. The study found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher in those with hearing loss as compared to those with healthy 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 appeal of this study is that it concurs with what we already know concerning neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its needs and the stimulation it gets.

Keeping Your Brain Young

To summarize, research demonstrates that the brain can change itself throughout life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or limit this decline.

But hearing aids can accomplish much more than that. As stated by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function regardless of age by partaking in challenging new activities, keeping socially active, and exercising mindfulness, among other techniques.

Hearing aids can help here too. 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 continue being socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.