Hard time hearing in noise? Here's why
Posted by Larry Dellwo, Audiologist on December 09, 2021
There are many signs of hearing loss — but one of the first signs that your hearing is going is if you can hear fine in quiet environments yet struggle to hear in noise. Here’s why.
Even for people with normal hearing, noisy settings can be tricky to navigate when trying to make out speech. That’s because we all use contextual cues during conversations — or clues from words we do make out — to fill in the gaps we miss due to background noise.
Background noise masks the finer sounds of speech, especially higher-pitched consonants which are key to so many words. By masking these important speech sounds — like “S, F, Th, Sh, Ch, K and P” — background noise makes it difficult for any of us to hear in crowded, noisy environments.
But add in hearing loss, and hearing in noise can be incredibly strenuous, as the brain is not always able to separate speech from the background noise or fill in the blanks of those missed sounds. Even when it can, the cognitive fatigue resulting from working so hard to “understand” can be exhausting.
How hearing aids can help in noise
Advanced signal processing technology in today’s hearing aids takes advantage of key differences between speech and noise to separate the two types of auditory stimulus (sounds) from one another.
Noise is typically more steady-state, meaning it does not have much fluctuation in its frequencies (pitch) or amplitude (loudness). Speech, however, tends to be highly variable in both frequency and amplitude.
Today’s hearing aids work to analyze and distinguish all sounds coming into the microphones — up to 55 million times every hour in the case of our hearing aids — then treat noise and speech differently so that the target signal (speech) is amplified and prioritized, while the background noise is compressed and not enhanced.
All this “under the hood” intricacy results in easier hearing and more comfortable listening — which should lead to less dread about visiting noisy environments and more enjoyment participating in social activities.
The right hearing aid makes the difference
But not every hearing enhancement device does this sound separation or is capable of it. Personal Sound Amplifiers (PSAPs), for instance, make all sounds louder, regardless of what they are. It’s one reason why they’re cheaper than hearing aids and, as you can imagine, make noisy environments worse, not better.
Instead, it’s important to get fit with a quality hearing aid — one that’s got the sophisticated operating system and internal horsepower capable of making these instantaneous sound distinctions. Hearing aids like that can make hearing effortless again.