Why you might have trouble hearing in background noise

Talking in a noisy place, like a busy restaurant, can be very frustrating. You might often have trouble understanding what someone is saying and ask them to repeat themselves.

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Why you might have trouble hearing in background noise

Talking in a noisy place, like a busy restaurant, can be very frustrating. You might often have trouble understanding what someone is saying and ask them to repeat themselves.

So, is it just extra noise? Or could it mean losing your hearing?

You might have hearing loss if you have trouble hearing, even with some background noise. High-frequency hearing loss means it's hard to hear sounds over 2000 Hz and hard to hear when there's a lot of background noise or people around.

Why is it hard to understand others in background noise?

In quiet places, the speech sound you're listening out for can be heard by itself. The sound information is clear and well-defined because it doesn't have to compete with anything else. So, it's usually easy to understand what people say in those situations.

In noisy places like restaurants, bars, and cafes, the primary speech sound gets mixed with multiple secondary speech sounds, or background noise. To solve this problem, the brain tries to organize and rank the sounds in the sound scene by focusing on the main speech sounds and ignoring the rest, called secondary sounds. 

There isn't a big difference between how the two speech signals are encoded for people with worse hearing loss. This means that people with hearing loss are less able to ignore the annoying secondary speech (i.e., background noise).

How an audiologist might check for issues with hearing speech in background noise.

The QuickSIN is a speech-in-noise test that measures how well a person can hear noise quickly and easily. The pure tone audiogram or other standard hearing tests are essential, but they can't be used to predict how well someone will understand speech in noise.

We use QuickSIN in addition to hearing threshold tests to get a complete picture of your hearing health and your specific needs. QuickSIN is also very helpful when choosing a hearing aid, setting appropriate expectations and determining what other accessories are needed. 

Ways to better understand others in background noise

Here are the various ways the speech-in-noise ratio can be improved for individuals with hearing loss.

Brain training games

A few programs exist which help you improve your cognitive and auditory skills through games and activities. A 2011 study published in Cerebral Cortex found that the Listening and Communication Enhancement (LACE) program showed "significant improvements in speech-in-noise" ability. Exciting research has also shown that people might be able to train themselves better to tell background noise from other sounds.

We hear with our ears, but it's the brain's job to figure out what we hear. The study's results show that the brain can keep making new connections even as it gets older, even when dealing with background noise. This type of brain training won't cure your hearing loss, but it can help you understand speech better by re-establishing lost connections in your brain. 

Hearing aids

Premium hearing aids on the market today often have cutting-edge technologies to help with hearing in noisy environments.

Automatic Noise Management helps the hearing device's processing system find noise on its own. Once the noise is found, the system will automatically lower the volume and "filter out" some noise while boosting the speech sounds.

Binaural Speech Processing and directional microphones allow the devices in each ear of the hearing system talk to each other wirelessly. When the right and left devices detect background noise, they automatically switch the microphones to directional mode. This mode helps the microphones pick up the speech signal from the front of the listener while picking up less background noise.

Assistive Listening Devices

In addition to hearing aids, devices like frequency modulation (FM) systems and remote microphones can be used to make the signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible. Most of the time, these devices bypass background noise and send the required sound directly into the ears of the recipient. 

Get your hearing tested

When hair cells in our inner ears die or hurt, we lose hearing. When you lose these cells, it affects not only how loud a sound has to be for you to hear it but also how well you understand speech and how well you can pick out speech when there is another noise around.

It is essential to explore the extent of your hearing loss with an audiological evaluation. The results of these tests are significant for both the person getting hearing care and the person getting care. For example, suppose a patient has moderate hearing loss but has trouble recognizing words and has difficulty understanding speech when there is a lot of background noise. This is because, even with the best hearing aids on the market, this patient will likely still have trouble hearing in noisy places. In that case, we'll talk to the patient in detail about these results so they have realistic expectations about using their hearing aid. 

The only way to know the extent of your hearing loss is through testing. Contact us today to see how we can help you hear better in background noise. 

Marni Novick, Audiologist in Los Gatos, CA

Dr. Marni Novick

Founder & Audiologist

Marni Novick, AuD, is founder of Silicon Valley Hearing, Inc., which opened its doors in 2014, with the promise of delivering honest and affordable hearing health care, along with exceptional customer service to her valued patients.

About Dr. Novick

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