Adjusting to Hearing Loss - The brain

When neuroscientists talk about the brain’s flexibility, they often use the term “plasticity.” What they mean is that your brain is able to adapt to changes it experiences over your lifetime, so that as your circumstances change, so does the way your brain works.

Researchers have studied how the brains of the blind have reconfigured themselves to cope without sight, and how other circumstances can lead the brain to favor one capability over another. They have even found that London’s famed cab drivers have brains better adapted to navigating the city’s streets.

So what does this mean if you are suffering hearing loss?

First, the good news: your brain will adapt to your loss of hearing. A research team found in 2015 that even in people suffering from mild hearing loss, the parts of the brain responsible for hearing are instead increasingly used for vision or touch, senses that are likely to become more acute to compensate for the loss of your ability to hear.

“Cross-modal recruitment of the hearing portion of the brain by the senses of vision and touch happens not only in deaf patients, but is also clearly apparent in adult patients with only a mild degree of hearing loss,” researcher Anu Sharma of the University of Colorado told the Acoustical Society of America when announcing her findings.

In other words, even small amounts of hearing loss can lead the brain to compensate for its new handicap.

But now, the bad news: even though the brain is trying to adapt to its new reality, it may actually inadvertently be doing damage. That same 2015 study indicates that when the portion of the brain devoted to hearing shrinks with hearing loss, the brain must devote additional resources to processing any sound at all. Though there isn’t a clear understanding of the impact of this “cognitive overload,” the research team believes that it might account for the high rates of dementia among patients who also experience hearing loss as they grow older.

Now the good news: the sooner you get hearing aids, the better it is for your brain.

The moral of the story is clear to Sharma and her colleagues: anyone experiencing even mild hearing loss should seek medical help to make sure they aren’t making harder to improve their hearing in the long term.

“Given that even small degrees of hearing loss can cause secondary changes in the brain, hearing screenings for adults and intervention in the form of hearing aids should be considered much earlier to protect against reorganization of the brain,” she advised.

And just like your brain adapted to life with hearing loss, it will also adapt to life with improved hearing courtesy of hearing aids. But the process can take some time. Most audiologists advise wearing your hearing aids consistently to give your brain ample time to re-adjust to hearing certain sounds.

The brain is highly adaptable and tries to adjust to limitations as best it can. But do your brain a favor and seek the help you need to understand and treat your hearing loss, if possible. You’ll be doing yourself—and your brain—a favor.

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