Aug 042009

Healthy Hearing, 8/3/09

If you ever had an untreated hearing loss, you know how frustrating and depressing it is not to be able to hear, communicate or interact with other people.

More than likely, your family and friends kept telling you: “Get some hearing aids already. It will improve not only your hearing but also your overall quality of life.”

They were right, of course. Hearing aids can make a world of difference, but that doesn’t mean that it comes without any glitches. One that nearly all wearers of this device mention time and again is the pesky problem of background noise.

Noises off

Hearing aids and background noise
Restaurant background noise is common source of frustration

As useful and helpful as hearing aids are – and that fact is undeniable – they do have the potential of one flaw: the inability to completely filter the sounds you want to hear from the ones you don’t.

For example, you may want to focus only on what the person next to you is saying, without being subjected to distracting background noises such as traffic or people shouting or laughing loudly. Unfortunately, hearing aids don’t block these sounds. Normal hearing persons often have the same difficulties in background noise.

That fact was recently brought up in an article published on the website of the Better Hearing Institute by Patricia B. Kricos, PhD, Professor of Audiology and Director of the Center for Gerontological Studies at the University of Florida.

“Despite tremendous advances in hearing aid technology, even with the latest digital noise reduction circuitry, background noise continues to be a problem,” Dr. Kricos writes.

She defines problematic background noise as “any noise that interferes with your ability to hear, understand, and/or pay attention to the signal that you want to hear.”

These undesirable noises, Dr. Kricos writes, “can particularly bother new hearing aid users during the first few weeks because for years they may not have heard everyday noises such as screeching brakes, clattering dishes, and rustling papers. Most long-time hearing aid users will tell you that the sudden ability to hear annoying noises is challenging, but the ability to tolerate these noises does get better with time.”

Background noise – here today, gone tomorrow

If your sense of hearing is getting overloaded and overwhelmed with background noise, you’ll be happy to know that there are some steps you can take to lessen the impact of the pesky disturbance.

Dr. Kricos details each measure in the article, but here is an overview of her helpful tips:

  • Two hearing aids instead of one: “A number of advantages of wearing two hearing aids include better ability to hear sound from either side, increased loudness of sound when two ears are listening, and ability to locate where sounds are occurring,” Dr. Kricos notes. “Using two hearing aids will improve speech understanding in noise for most people.”
  • Hearing aids with digital signal processing: Dr. Kricos points out hearing aids with digital signal processing (DSP) are able to differentiate between speech and noise, lowering the volume when they identify noise. Many people who wear this type of technology report that background noise seems to fade and the quality of speech is better, though not perfect. The majority of hearing aids sold today are digital hearing aids.
  • Hearing aids with a directional microphones: With this option, Dr. Kricos reports, the user can switch the hearing aid from a setting that picks up sound from all directions – front, back, and sides- to one that picks up primarily sounds coming from the front of the hearing aid user. As a result, less background noise is heard.
  • FM technology consists of an FM transmitter that picks up a speaker’s voice, and an FM receiver that transmits the sound to a listener’s ear. Since the talker’s voice is delivered at a significantly louder level than the background noise, Dr. Kricos says people who use this technology find speech significantly easier to understand, especially in noisy settings. FM technology can be used with or without hearing aids. Using FM technology with hearing aids provides that extra emphasis on speech that many persons with hearing loss require in troublesome background noise.
  • Auditory training: Several “listening training” programs have proven effective in honing auditory skills. Among them are The Sensimetrics Seeing and Hearing SpeechTM, the Listening and Auditory Communication Enhancement (LACETM), and The SensimetricsTM program (

Hear better in social settings

In her article, Dr. Kricos also suggests some practical tips on overcoming the challenges of background noise in public places. Among them:

  1. Plan ahead by picking a quieter restaurant and avoid notoriously noisy sports bars. For example, try to find carpeted restaurants that have chairs with rollers on the legs (thus preventing an annoying scraping sound when they are moved), plants, and sound absorbent materials on the tables and walls.
  2. Pick a table in the least noisy part of the restaurant – away from the kitchen, bar, wait service stations, etc.
  3. Remember that even people with normal hearing experience greater difficulty in a noisy listening environment than they do in a quiet listening environment. So, don’t expect to do as well with your hearing aids in the noisy restaurant as you do in the quiet of your home.
  4. Sit with your back to the window, so that lighting is on the speaker’s face, not in your eyes.

For a more complete list of measures you can take to get the most of your hearing aids (and the least of background noise) read Dr. Kricos’s article on Tips for Hearing In Noise

– Thanks to Bob MacPherson and NVRC, Fairfax