Ask Dr. Abonso
3. Why Does My Wife Have So Much Trouble Hearing In Noise?

Dr. Abonso: Is she tired of going to your parties?

Suspicious Consumer: I didn't request psychological counseling, I asked a question about hearing. Do you have any information that might help?

Dr. Abonso: I can take a guess. She probably has a hearing loss.

Suspicious Consumer: Why would that cause her trouble hearing in noise? Wouldn't the hearing loss filter out some of the noise, so it would be easier to hear in noise?

Dr. Abonso: Good questions. I'll see if I can answer them, but I need to explain how people with normal hearing hear in noise.

Suspicious Consumer: OK, I'll listen.

Dr. Abonso: First, people only need to hear a surprisingly small portion of the speech sounds to understand speech; something like 25% is sufficient for conversational purposes. Second, noise is highly variable; sometimes it covers up low-frequency speech sounds, sometimes mid-frequency, sometimes high-frequency sounds. A normal-hearing person hears whatever speech sounds aren't covered up at the moment and -- as long as there is at least 25% left -- puts the pieces together to make intelligible sentences.

Suspicious Consumer: So, hearing in noise requires a brain?

Dr. Abonso: Aha! You've got it! Yes, the brain that is fed sufficient information can separate speech from noise. It gives us what seems like automatic noise suppression with little conscious effort.

Suspicious Consumer: I'm not sure about the "little effort." But what does all this have to do with my wife'' presumed hearing loss?

Dr. Abonso: At a party, whenever the noise covers up the low-frequency or mid-frequency speech sounds, you and I could get by on the remaining high-frequency sounds. Your wife can't hear them, so she has nothing to go on. Her brain just doesn't receive enough information to put the sentences together, regardless of how bright she is or how hard she tries.

Suspicious Consumer: Can't she buy a hearing aid with a useful noise suppressor option?

Dr. Abonso: No (although one company's ads might suggest she could.) Suppressing noise also suppresses speech information that your wife needs. But let's talk about what your wife really needs to do.

Suspicious Consumer: Stop going to parties?

Dr. Abonso: Not unless she drinks too much. A better solution is for you to see an experienced hearing professional to find out if your wife really does have a hearing loss.

Suspicious Consumer: Why do that when you've told me she can't get a useful noise-suppressor hearing aid?

Dr. Abonso: Ah, but she can get hearing aids that will restore the information to her brain so she can function at parties. High-fidelity hearing aids became available in 1990. Older hearing aids didn't work nearly as well.

© 1993

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