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While hearing aids have come a very long ways as far as technology is concerned, the complaint I get most often from hearing aid wearers is, “My hearing aids are great when I’m somewhere quiet, but as soon as I’m around noise I still have difficulty hearing.” Hearing in the presence of background is always going to be a challenge, no matter how great your hearing aids are. When we talk about background noise, we mean any noise that interferes with the ability to hear, to understand, or to concentrate/pay attention to whatever it is you are trying to hear.
Although background noise is bothersome for old and new hearing aid users alike, it is particularly challenging for first time hearing aid wearers during the first few weeks…because the majority of hearing aid wearers wait several years before pursuing amplification after they notice their hearing loss. The good news is that this lessens over time as the brain gets used to hearing these sounds again and starts recognizing what to ignore and what to concentrate on most.
Background noise can be anything: traffic, music, dishes clattering at a restaurant, people talking behind you or all around you, echoes, several people talking at once, fans, car noises, and so on. These noises can be louder than whatever it is you are trying to hear, or they may distract you from a voice or the focus of your listening.
There are ways to help reduce background noise. For instance, wearing two hearing aids instead of one seems to help people process sound and to help improve speech understanding in noise. While this is not an option for people who only have hearing in one ear, it is something to consider when purchasing aids. I have often recommended patients to purchase two less-sophisticated hearing aids as opposed to one premium/high-end instrument for this reason. Please listen to your hearing healthcare professional’s recommendations.
Another thing to consider is that the vast majority of hearing aids today are digital and have both directional microphones and noise reduction in them…meaning that they will REDUCE the noise when they detect it, but they will not get rid of it altogether. With directional microphones, the hearing aids can be programmed to pick up sounds to the front or sides of listeners but to reduce the sound coming from the side or back. This works fairly well in restaurants or group settings, but does NOT work well if you are trying to hear a passenger in the back seat or someone who sits behind you at work. A trip to your hearing healthcare professional will help to determine if there may be some more advantageous settings for your hearing aids and their microphones. Many hearing aids have a switch or button you can press to change the program on the instrument for multiple memories (ie one for listening in quiet, one for listening in a restaurant, one for listening to a person in the back seat of the car, and so forth).
Another possibility to consider for hearing better in noise is to make use of an FM system. In an FM system, a transmitter picks up the talker’s voice and sends it to a receiver that is connected to the hearing aid by a boot. One of the limitations to this type of technology is that it works Behind-the-Ear instruments but not with custom made hearing aids. FM systems improve the signal to noise ratio, or SNR. We want the signal you are listening to to be greater than the noise in the background.
The most important thing for listening in background noise is to use effective communication strategies:
1) Pick a quieter restaurant
2) Go to your favorite restaurants where you know the menu and don’t have to ask as many questions about it; that will help alleviate the stress of worrying you cannot hear.
3) Ask for a table in the least noisy parts of the restaurant (away from the kitchen or bar, not near the service stations).
4) Ask to be seated somewhere well-lit (that way you will be able to see faces and lips when people are talking).
5) Request that the music be turned down slightly.
6) If your hearing aids are set to directional, sit with your back to the noise.
We live in an awfully noisy world these days, so you must be prepared!
Until next time,