This Is What Happens to Your Brain When Your Hearing Starts to Go

Picture of a woman with illustation of a brain. Deteriorating brain function.

Hearing loss affects your brain and has been associated with cognitive decline and decreased memory. Here’s why.

You’ve become quite adept at reading lips, even in dim light. It’s a skill you’ve practiced a bit more often lately–alas, out of necessity. Your hearing has been noticeably worse in the past few months (could be years if you’re really being honest). And you’re noticing other things too, though you keep telling yourself you’re just tired.

But there could be a little more going on, and it might have something to do with your brain. When your hearing starts to go, your brain starts to change.

Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss

We usually think about brains as pretty static: sure, maybe your behavior could change down the road but your brain–your brain stays the same. The notion is usually summed up by that saying about not teaching an old dog new tricks. Except that it’s not true.

Your brain is capable of monumental changes, sometimes at a moment’s notice. In some cases, even the fundamental structure of your brain can transform. It’s a property that scientists call neuroplasticity. (Scientists love their big words, it’s true.)

Essentially, neuroplasticity is just a scientific way of talking about how flexible your brain is. This flexibility has been well documented in children (for example, we know that long hours of watching TV or playing video games can result in physical changes to the brain over time). New research is shedding light on precisely what this neuroplasticity means for people with hearing loss.

How Hearing Loss Affects Your Mental Agility

According to the most recent research, here’s what basically happens:

  • A typical human brain will have designated centers devoted to specific activities. Part of your brain handles deep thought, for example. Another part handles information from your eyes, another part interprets sounds.
  • In an individual with untreated hearing loss, the part of the brain that handles sounds isn’t as active. It doesn’t have much to do, since your body is directing few signals in that direction.
  • Over time, the brain will repurpose those listening-centers of your brain to instead interpret information coming from the eyes and other stimuli. In other words, your brain devotes more space and processing power to other senses.

This type of mental elasticity had been known to occur in individuals who had complete or near-complete deafness. But scientists are now discovering the same thing happening in people who are exhibiting even the beginning signs of hearing loss.

That might help explain why your lip reading skills are suddenly much improved. Your brain is devoting more power to what you’re seeing. (Of course, it could be the practice, too–it’s hard to attribute any one thing on these changes in your brain.)

Interestingly, this is true for other senses as well. Researchers have noticed that people who have vision loss also have difficulty with mental acuity and may even be an early risk factor for dementia.

Other research suggests that the greater the hearing loss is, the less plasticity there is in the brain, specifically in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. This study also linked hearing loss to memory loss.

Keeping your senses sharp, then, is important to your overall brain health.

Prepare for an Adjustment Period

The neuroplasticity on display in your brain is usually a good thing, helping you to adjust to changing circumstances. But researchers do point to a couple of moments when it could get a bit awkward.

Let’s say that you’re finally going to pick up a pair of hearing aids. You’re tired of reading lips, and who can blame you? But when you first put those hearing aids in, the clarity of speech is lacking–a lot. It’s hard for you to understand what anyone is saying, even though the volume of the speech seems okay.

This happens because the audio centers of your brain are now accustomed to working with visual information, not audio stimuli. The pathways have been repurposed. It will take some time, but they will readjust again.

Your Brain Will Catch Up If You Get Hearing Aids

The good news is that neuroplasticity can solve problems in two directions. When your ears start transmitting again, your brain will begin to change back. The areas responsible for interpreting sound will get back to doing what they do best. But that does take time, so it’s important to stick with your hearing aid while your brain makes the appropriate changes.

Neuroplasticity is just your brain’s way of trying to get you the information you need. And it’s happening all the time. So your brain will start to change when your hearing starts to go. The changes aren’t permanent–but that transformation does depend on what you do next.

Other Factors That Affect Your Brain

How your brain processes stimuli when you are hearing impaired is still being researched, and there is some debate. But there are other theories on how hearing loss affects your brain. Some researchers have noted that people who experience hearing loss often will withdraw social, if not physically, at least start to tune out conversations they have trouble following. This, over time, can lead to isolation and reduced brain activity. But whether it’s neuroplasticity or social isolation (or something else), hearing loss can affect your brain and you should take it seriously.

Page medically reviewed by Kevin St. Clergy, Audiologist, on April 24, 2020.

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