Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Hearing loss affects 48 million Americans today with 1 out of 3 over 65 years having some type of hearing loss. The most common statement made by someone with a hearing impairment is their difficulty hearing a specific voice in a background noise situation, i.e. “My wife’s voice at a restaurant”. To understand why this issue occurs, we first have to understand that we hear with both our ears and our brain.
Our ears collect incoming sounds, both speech and noise, and the inner ear precisely filters sound into different sections that are fine tuned to specific frequencies (pitch). As hearing loss progresses it creates more damaged sections resulting in a fuzzier message for the brain to decode. Researcher Kenneth S. Henry at Purdue University states “when immersed in noise, the damaged inner ear must work harder because” it has fewer sections of fine-tuned information. Think of trying to play “Amazing Grace” on the piano (inner ear) with a 1/3 of the keys missing (damaged sections).… it wouldn’t sound right. Hearing aids can help an individual artificially replace sound from sections that are missing on the inner ear, which helps in quiet environments and smaller groups, but everyone hears differently in noise due to their brain’s capacity to decode the fuzzy signal.
When hearing in noise, our brains have to filter, sort and use other resources from the incoming signal and do it quickly. The challenge is as we age this neural process begins to decline in our 40s and 50s resulting in our brains becoming overwhelmed at times. We then have to rely on our cognitive systems of memory and attention to help filter the speech from noise. A person’s ability to hear in noise is a very individualized process which is why some people hear fine in noisy environments with their hearing aids and other’s do not. Their neural pathways in the brain make the difference.
While research continues to define the challenges in the brain with noise, there is a current hearing test called the Quick SIN (Speech-in-noise) that can be useful. This test provides a person a score and understanding of where their current ability to understand speech in noise is at. This test is very useful in helping with counseling, deciding hearing aid technology and providing strategies for family to help a person in noisy environments.
When you decide to go to a hearing healthcare professional, be sure to choose an Audiologist or Doctor of Audiology. Their training and education are the most appropriate to diagnose and treat hearing health conditions including utilizing best practices for your healthcare.