by: Dr. Arthur Zinaman
Background noise, ambient noise, reverberation, many conversations at once, chatter, babble, murmur… whatever you wish to label it, competing sound interferes with the clarity and understanding speech. Most people experience this occurring in busy restaurants, parties, gatherings, and other social situations where there is a crowd.
Here is the typical scenario; you’re out to dinner at a busy restaurant where you meet friends. You are looking forward to dining on tasty food and to catch up on everyone’s lives. But instead of enjoying yourself eating and conversing, you’re getting frustrated because you can’t hear the conversations clearly. You find it is difficult to follow the conversations; the dull noise in the restaurant is simply overwhelming to the point where conversing for you is near impossible. Toward the end of the dinner, all you want to do is go home and get away from the noise. Sound familiar?
For people with hearing loss this situation is common and very distressing. Many of my patients tell me that their hearing loss is most noticeable by others when in noisy places, stating that understanding speech is difficult. “What? Huh? Would you please repeat that? Sorry? Again please. This is because loud noise has a negative effect on hearing speech accurately and clearly.
Background noise can affect people in two ways. First, background ‘clutter’ can make it very difficult to understand conversation because the ‘clutter’ is louder than the speech you want to hear. Second, ambient noise presents problems hearing clearly because it distracts you from the speaker.
So, what can be done? There have been many advances in hearing aid technology to help resolve the problems associated with background noise. Valuable work in research and development has improved hearing devices and advanced the effectiveness of hearing aids in numerous acoustic environments. Hearing aids work to analyze sounds coming into the microphones; noise and speech are ‘separated’ and processed differently so that the speech is amplified while the background noise is not enhanced or amplified.
Many hearing aid users say that the ability to hear well, with accompanying loud noise is challenging. The ability to hear clearly through the unwanted sound does get better with time. As the auditory system becomes acclimated to hearing aids, the ‘strangeness’ or ‘newness’ of the hearing instruments decreases, and better speech understanding increases
Options below can help lessen problems hearing with ambient noises:
- Wearing two hearing aids. There is a wealth of information available touting the advantages of binaural hearing. Simply stated, using both ears (the entire auditory system) allows for better processing and clearer results when listening. Wearing two hearing aids provide increased loudness of sound and improved ability to locate where sounds are occurring. It appears that having an improved ability to hear sound from either side of your head is beneficial. Seems to make sense, yes?
- Benefit from the latest technology to improve the ratio between wanted and unwanted sounds. Today’s hearing aids with digital signal processing (DSP) reduces background noise and improves speech clarity so hearing conversation in a restaurant is easier. Hearing aids with DSP can differentiate between speech and noise; and when unwanted noise is encountered the hearing aids self-adjust to provide maximum speech clarity.
- Wireless technology is another option that is beneficial for patients. Hearing aids can connect, wirelessly, to a mobile microphone which can be placed in front of the speaker or on the table to ‘pick up’ the conversation. Wireless hearing aids also work together as a pair, not as two single devices. This allows the hearing aids to ‘adjust’ independently to provide optimal balance between the ears.
- Leaning to interpret and use communication strategies such as: lip reading, speech context, body language, gestures, facial expressions, eye movements, volume of voice, and body posture, all assist to lessen frustration when noise becomes loud.
- Today hearing aids use a directional (or multiple) microphone option. With this option, the hearing aid switches from an omnidirectional setting (picks up sound from all directions) to a directional setting (picks up sounds coming from the front). Hearing aids with directional/multiple microphones can help to isolate the speaker from the noise for better understanding.
Here are some useful tips that I’ve gathered from patients who are experienced hearing aids wearers and how they manage noise. You may find some of these helpful.
- Choose a quieter restaurant to dine. Carpeted restaurants, dropped ceilings, sound absorbent materials (curtains), tablecloths, all help to provide a more comfortable listening environment as they reduce reverberation/echo. Find a restaurant that is furnished in this fashion and most likely you’ll hear better.
- Make reservations at times when you believe the facility to less crowded. Less people, less noise.
- Make it a point to dine with a smaller number of table guests. This will cut down on the ‘cross-talk’ at your table.