Graphic of brain
Photo credit: flickr Saad Faruque

Twentieth-century neuroscience has uncovered something rather amazing: namely that your brain can change itself well into your adult years. While in the early 1900s it was thought that the brain stopped changing in adolescence, we now understand that the brain reacts to change all throughout life.


To appreciate exactly how your brain changes, think of this comparison: envision your ordinary daily route to work. Now picture that the route is blocked and how you would respond. You wouldn’t simply give up, turn around, and head home; instead, you’d find 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 occurring in your brain when a “regular” function is blocked. The brain reroutes its processing down new paths, and this re-routing process is referred to as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity comes in handy for learning new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier behavior. After a while, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new behaviors and once-challenging tasks become automatic.

However, while neuroplasticity can be useful, 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 reverse effect.

Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is an example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As described in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the segment of the brain dedicated to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with initial-stage hearing loss. This is thought to illuminate the association between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

With hearing loss, the areas of our brain in charge of other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-used areas of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this diminishes the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it weakens our ability to understand speech.

So, 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 You

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 magnifies the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can shape new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. As a result, increased stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain in control of hearing will promote growth and development in this area.

In fact, a recently published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society determined that utilizing hearing aids inhibits 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, 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 exhibited 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 regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it receives.

Maintaining a Young Brain

In summary, 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 reduce this decline.

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

Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss tends to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by wearing hearing aids, you can make sure that you remain socially active and continue to activate the sound processing and language regions of your brain.