By Robert L. Martin
Scientific understanding of aging is changing rapidly. We used to believe that people got weak and forgetful as they aged.
We also used to believe that the neurons in the brain could not be replaced if they were damaged. We thought that brain cells could not re-grow and that the synaptic interconnections between neurons could not reconnect.
But we now understand that both these concepts are incorrect. There are many people in their nineties who have great memories! Some of them even run marathons! And we have discovered that the tissues of the brain continue to grow and develop all of our lives.
So if age is not the primary cause of deterioration and if neurons can re-generate, what causes the weakness and the forgetfulness that so many seniors do experience? The answer is often “disuse.” The parts of our body that we use get stronger and regenerate. The parts we ignore get much weaker.
DISUSE, NOT AGE, IS THE PROBLEM
You can best understand brain physiology by comparing the brain to muscles. All of us understand the use-it-or-lose-it concept as it pertains to muscles. You can’t spend all week in bed and then go dancing Saturday night. People who spend a month in a hospital bed lose their ability to walk.
Likewise, the brain’s motor and intellectual skills decline if we do not continuously put them to work. Our brains are either getting stronger from use or getting weaker from neglect and inactivity.
The use-it-or-lose-it concept applies to specific areas of the body and brain, not to the whole structure. For example, you might think that running would strengthen the entire body equally, but this is not the case. As evidence, consider long-distance runners. They develop powerful leg muscles and strong skeletal structures, but their upper body tends to look emaciated.
The sport that each athlete pursues stimulates specific muscle development. Swimmers tend to develop their upper body; runners—especially long-distance runners—develop their lower body.
This concept also applies to specific parts of the brain. A dancer will develop the cerebellum, which is responsible for muscle coordination, while a person who makes a lot of fast decisions will develop the prefrontal cortex portion of the brain. Areas of the brain that are used a lot show up much more brightly on functional MRI tests.
The opposite is also true. If you don’t use a specific region of the brain, it weakens. Underuse of the temporal lobe in the auditory cortex causes those areas to weaken, and hearing loss results.
HEARING AIDS EXERCISE THE BRAIN
Now, you may ask, how does this relate to wearing hearing aids? I’ll explain.
The ear converts sound into electrical signals that are passed to the brain’s auditory cortex through large nerves. This stimulation causes new neural connections to form.
Using hearing aids promotes the retention of language skills, memory, and other cogitative abilities. When a hard-of-hearing person wears hearing aids, the amplified sound provides the necessary input to stimulate continuous strengthening of neural networks in the brain. Just as “normal hearing” facilitates the acquisition of speech and language in children, “corrected hearing” (hearing with hearing aids) helps maintain the language centers of the brain in adults.
We use our hearing to stay connected to people. Hearing is our primary channel for communication. As we age we become more dependent on other people.
In summary, the act of talking to friends is powerful medicine! New research shows that when we work our brains their function improves. All of us, regardless of our age, need to stay active and involved with other people. Better hearing helps us to do this, and doing this helps us keep hearing well.