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Most people have trouble understanding conversations in background noise environments. This includes people with normal hearing as well as people who have hearing loss. Persons with hearing loss can get assistance with specifically tuned amplification from an audiologist – most commonly in the form of a hearing aid.
The most recent advances in hearing aid technology significantly enhance a person’s ability to hear in all situations even those where there is a lot of background noise. If your hearing is normal, however, you are very limited.
This type of difficulty in hearing can be associated with a “hidden hearing loss or cochlear synaptophy.” Traditional hearing tests do not measure this.
We are finding out that there is evidence that
..the cause of processing speech in background noise is different than the cause of problems hearing sound.
Science shows that being exposed to loud noises can erode the brain’s ability to listen selectively and decode words without causing traditional hearing damage. Difficulty understanding speech in noise can set in a long time before a hearing loss is noticed by traditional hearing testing.
Hearing loss, as we know it, begins with damage to the extremely fine, hair cells that line the inner ear and transfer sound signals to nerve fibers that lead to the brain. Aging, noise exposure, as well as trauma can damage the hair cells, causing the sound to distort or be completely missing.
By the time sounds gets to the brain, there is either distorted sound or no sound at all for the brain to decipher. The nerve fibers are lost or damaged long before the hair cells start to show hearing loss.
Think of the speech signals as a picture with thousands of pixels creating a clear view of the picture. If some of the nerve connections do not function, the brain gets a lower resolution picture.
The University of Michigan has a study published in Nature, April 2016, currently working with mice. Their goal is to regenerate the synapses by injecting them with neurotrophin-3 (protein that stimulates growth). They have been successful. This is a step closer, but it is not ready to test on humans.
They say it takes about 7 years for a person to seek help when they first suspect a hearing issue. Because you can’t fake your way through a conversation if you are having difficulty, go ahead and see an audiologist. As audiologists, we urge you to come in to see what solutions are available for you.
Learn more about the ENT & audiology services we offer at WakeMed, and contact us to schedule an appointment today.
Robin Jones has been an audiologist at WakeMed since 2014. Having grown up in Virginia, Robin received a Bachelor’s degree in speech communication sciences from James Madison University, followed by her Master’s degree in audiology from University of Southern Mississippi, and her Doctorate in audiology from A.T. Still University of Health Sciences.
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