Hearing Aids and Background Noise: How Do I Cope?
If you have a hearing loss, it will make it more difficult to hear other people speak when you’re in an environment with a lot of background noise. This makes sense if we understand how people are designed to hear in noisy situations. We can investigate what goes wrong when people are not able to hear well in an environment with background noise even when they do wear hearing aids. This raises the question of how hearing aids help us hear better in noisy situations. In addition to hearing aids, practical strategies can also help us hear better in noise.
If you struggle to understand your friend when they’re speaking to you in a noisy place, you’re not alone. One in six Australians suffer from hearing loss. At Attune, we’re dedicated to helping people enjoy social situations where they can comfortably participate in a conversation even if there is background noise.
Below we’ve outlined how we hear with background noise and, if you have hearing loss, how you can hear better in noisy environments.
How We Hear with Background Noise Present
When we are in a noisy environment, our brains work to filter the conversation we wish to hear from the noise. The brain compares the information provided by each ear to select the signal and discard the background noise. It uses minute differences in the loudness of a sound in the right ear compared to that in the left ear to filter out noise. Filtering works best when the conversion we are trying to listen to is a perfectly intact signal.
If we consider how miniscule the differences are between what the right ear hears and what the left ear hears, it becomes easier to understand how even imperceptible distortions in the signal can hamper hearing in noisy situations. These distortions are associated with hearing loss. Localising the direction that sound is coming from also relies on comparing the information from both ears.
When we can then turn towards the person who is talking, we get the best access to their sound and best view of their face.
Why Hearing with Background Noise is Difficult with Hearing Loss
What is confusing is that we hear so well in quiet places. When there is no noise, the speech signal appears perfect. This is because there is only one signal to decipher when we are not in an environment with background noise, such that our brains can easily smooth and tidy up the signal without us even noticing.
The fact that the signal is distorted or degraded is most obvious when someone suffers from a sudden hearing loss. They notice that although yesterday (with normal hearing), they had no trouble understanding people with accents. Today (due to sudden hearing loss), accents have become a problem to understand. This is because it is more difficult for the brain to seamlessly ‘plug the gaps’ where the signal is unfamiliar. With a familiar accent, our brains cleverly combine the context of the conversation, visual cues, and the signal to allow us to hear a clear message when there is no background noise. When there is background noise, hearing becomes more difficult and is often difficult even while wearing hearing aids.
How Hearing Aids Help with Background Noise
If you have hearing loss, it makes sense that you will hear better with amplification via hearing aids. They help you to hear well in quiet places, so why is it that many with hearing loss struggle to hear in noisy environments despite wearing hearing aids?
Hearing aids seem to amplify the noise as much as the speech you are trying to hear. Your audiologist can alter the way that your hearing aids respond to sound and noise. However, if you have simple hearing aids, they aren’t designed to be worn in environments with background noise.
The best hearing aids offer high levels of noise reduction technology and speech focus technology to help individuals with hearing loss to hear better in noisy environments. Top hearing aids help individuals hear better in noisy places by performing some of the tasks that our brains are no longer able to perform due to the degraded signal associated with hearing loss. The higher the quality of the hearing aid, the more they support hearing with background noise.
Practical Strategies for Better Outcomes with Background Noise
There are a few practical strategies you can use to help you hear better in noisy environments than you would with just hearing aids alone. The below strategies are particularly important when your hearing aids are not able to offer you top of the range speech focus and noise reduction technology.
Where you position yourself during a conversation affects your ability to hear speech while in an environment with background noise. You should position yourself with the noise behind you and the person you want to hear in front of you. Even the simplest hearing aids have some ability to reduce noise behind us and focus somewhat on the speech in front of our faces.
Positioning yourself away from additional sources of noise to reduce overall noise is also helpful. For example, in a busy restaurant, you can sit in a quiet corner. Positioning also includes choosing to go to venues with better acoustics where possible.
Timing is important when you want to give yourself the best chance of hearing well with hearing aids in noisy environments. Opting to go to places that often have noise at quieter times of the day or less popular days is helpful.
Arriving early is also beneficial, as it allows you to select a seat where you can expect to hear best, furthest away from additional sources of noise.
3. Asking others
Being willing to ask others to assist can also help you hear better with your hearing aids in places with background noise. If there is background music, it may be helpful to ask that the music be turned down.
You can also ask those that are talking in meetings to use microphones if possible. Everyone in the meeting will benefit from being able to hear better.
Enquire whether the venue may have a loop system, which can send electronic signals directly to many hearing aids. Hearing the speech signal directly in the ears via hearing aids and loop systems makes hearing in noisy places significantly easier.
4. Being confident
Being confident and familiar with the sound and controls of your hearing aids gives you the best chance to hear well when there is background noise. Some hearing aids allow you to select a program or setting for better listening in noise.
When in noisy places, our friends automatically raise their voices. This phenomenon is called the ‘cocktail party effect’. With this in mind, it may be helpful to turn down the volume on your hearing aids. Reducing the volume can reduce the noise while still leaving your friend’s voice loud enough to hear.
All of these strategies are helpful in allowing you to hear better in noisy situations with your hearing aids, particularly if you have simple ones. If you have top level hearing aids, the technology is likely to help you hear well in noise automatically with minimal manual adjustment.
To Sum It Up
Sadly, there will always be places where you cannot hear well with background noise despite wearing hearing aids. However, the difficulty that people with hearing loss have in environments makes sense when we consider how people are designed to hear in noisy situations.
Where you cannot access high quality hearing aids, practical strategies can help you to get the best out of your hearing aids in noisy environments.