The sound of people talking and clinking glasses bounces off hard walls and floors
If your hearing difficulties aren’t too severe, you may well still find it much harder to hear what’s going on in a noisy room. Why is that? Well, researchers have found that people who have hearing problems actually hear differently in loud environments. The sensors in their ears respond differently to sound in loud or quiet environments, which in turn causes sound information (sensory input) to be interpreted by the brain incorrectly. Impaired hearing is most commonly caused by damage to sensory cells in the inner ear. These sensory neurons are activated by noise and they then send ‘messages’ to the central nervous system to be interpreted by the brain. In a loud environment, these same neurons have to work a lot harder because there are too few of them for the task in hand. It is, say the researchers, like ‘turning on a dozen television screens and asking someone to focus on one programme. The result can be fuzzy because these neurons get distracted by other information.’ So although your hearing impairment may not seem to be that severe in a normal environment, when your ear’s sensors are exposed to too much input, they can’t cope, leaving you struggling to really hear what’s being said. The researchers also found that the auditory nerve fibres were most ‘distracted’ by background noise, an important finding that could influence the design of hearing aids in the future.
It’s not always possible to avoid social situations where there are lots of people talking, but background noise is worst in places with no soft furnishings. The sound of people talking, clinking glasses or cutlery, for example, bounces off hard walls and hardwood or tiled floors and the noise becomes exaggerated until it seems overwhelming. Whenever possible, it’s worth choosing pubs, bars or restaurants that have carpets, heavy curtains and wall hangings, all of which help to reduce background noise.
And if you are having problems, don’t put off investigating the possibility of hearing aids. These days, they are barely visible and highly effective and the NHS waiting list is more likely to be a few weeks than months. For more on what’s available, go to NHS Choices or Action on Hearing loss (formerly RNID)