We know from many years of research that the brain changes when we have hearing loss. The auditory (hearing) neurons can change in structure, function and resource allocation.
The hearing system is very complex and involves connections to many other areas of the brain, as well as different types of neurons. Researchers suggest that hearing loss can affect non-auditory areas of the brain as well as the auditory system.
Our brains are amazing! When we are not hearing well the brain redirects some of the energy and resources from other brain processes to ‘help out’ the auditory system; this is called “cognitive compensation”. Not only can the neurons in the hearing regions (the auditory system) in the brain change, but other non-auditory areas in the brain can also change. Areas involved in hearing and understanding speech: the attention, visual and motor networks are recruited to compensate for impaired auditory processing.
This reallocation of neural resources can be helpful, but unfortunately can have a negative effect over the long term. Effortful listening therefore can lead to less resources available in the non-auditory areas and can deplete their cognitive function. Although the causal link and exact mechanisms are not yet fully understood, research points to associations between age related hearing loss and cognitive decline and an increased risk of developing dementia.
There is good news too! Research into hearing loss shows that hearing aids can help to restore auditory perception and reduce cognitive load, allowing resources to be allocated where they should be! Hearing aids can assist with neural re-organisation, prevent auditory deprivation and atrophy, and improve the brain’s overall fitness and health.