How Hearing Aids Can Boost Brain Function
Twentieth century neuroscience has discovered something rather amazing: specifically that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. Whereas in the early 1900s it was presumed that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now acknowledge that the brain reacts to change all 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 just surrender, turn around, and head home; rather, you’d find an substitute route. If that route turned out to be more efficient, or if the original route remained closed, the new route would become the new routine.
Similar processes are taking place in your brain when a “regular” 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 mastering new languages, new abilities like juggling, or new healthier behavior. After some time, the physical changes to the brain match to the new habits and once-challenging tasks become automatic.
Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be beneficial, there’s another side that can be hazardous. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a favorable impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the opposite effect.
Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is one example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As discussed in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the segment of the brain devoted to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with beginning-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-used areas of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this lowers the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it impairs our capacity to comprehend speech.
So, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not just because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s to a certain extent caused by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help
Like most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s natural ability to change. While neuroplasticity exacerbates the effects of hearing loss, it also elevates the performance of hearing aids. Our brain can create new connections, regenerate tissue, and reroute neural pathways. That means 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 newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society revealed that utilizing hearing aids curbs 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 utilized 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 concurs with what we already know regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself according to its requirements and the stimulation it receives.
Maintaining a Young Brain
In summary, research shows that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can speed up cognitive decline, and that using hearing aids can prevent or minimize this decline.
But hearing aids can achieve a lot more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can boost your brain function regardless of age by engaging 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 influence. But by using hearing aids, you can ensure that you continue being socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.