Contributed by Joy Victory, Editor-in-Chief, Healthy Hearing
What is the number one complaint hearing care professionals hear from their new hearing impaired patients? Ask them and they’ll probably say, âI can hear, but I can’t understand. If this is what you are going through, you could have hearing loss.
Hearing loss involves not only the ears, but also the brain where sound is translated into meaningful words. Symptoms vary from person to person. Hearing loss comes in all degrees, from mild to severe.
But most people, especially older people, have mild to moderate hearing loss, especially the type that makes it harder to hear high-pitched sounds.
In this case, the main symptom may be difficulty understanding words, especially in noisy situations.
Hearing vs understanding
When your hearing is tested, the results are plotted on an audiogram. It is said that people with high frequency deafness have “sloping” deafness. If you have sloping hearing loss, it means that you are able to hear low-pitched sounds (like thunder), sometimes even as clearly as a person with normal hearing. But high-pitched sounds (like children’s voices) have to be much louder before you can hear them.
Although this is not always the case, high frequency hearing loss is often the cause of the feeling that you can hear but cannot understand.
Did you say parrot or ferret?
In speech, the sounds of vowels (A, E, I, O and U) are weak while consonants like S, F, Th, Sh, V, K, P and others are high pitched. Being able to hear vowels is helpful and will alert you that speech is present, but it is the consonants that give speech meaning and help you distinguish one word from another. Without being able to hear the subtle differences between consonants, words like “cat” and “hat”, “parrot” and “ferret” and “show” and “throw” can be difficult to tell apart. This is why so many people with age-related hearing loss or excessive noise exposure have difficulty understanding even when they know sound is present.
Hearing problem with background noise
If you suffer from high frequency hearing loss, you may notice problems with speech understanding even in a relatively quiet environment, but when background noise is present or several people are talking at the same time, it can become almost impossible to follow a conversation. People with hearing loss may begin to avoid busy social situations or public places that they once enjoyed because interacting with others is too difficult.
Signs of high frequency hearing loss
When you have high frequency hearing loss, you can:
- difficulty following conversations (hearing but cannot understand).
- hardly hear people on the phone.
- having trouble watching TV shows or movies even when you turn up the volume.
- hearing the voices of women and young children
- not enjoy music because it sounds distorted, especially at higher volumes.
- the impression that everyone mumbles more often
- feeling exhausted from listening, known as listening fatigue
Family members, friends, and co-workers can get frustrated and feel like you’re not listening to them when they’re talking to you. Your partner may accuse you of having “selective hearing”. You can accuse others of mumbling. Sometimes you will answer questions inappropriately and miss the point of jokes. Other times you may smile and nod your head when someone is speaking to make it look like you are listening when in fact you don’t understand what was just said (see this woman’s story to find out how it works in real life). Untreated hearing loss can take a toll on your relationships, your career, and your daily life.
Pass a hearing test but still feel like you can’t hear?
If you’ve had a hearing test and been told your hearing is good, don’t give up trying to get answers just yet. Your ears may be fine, but your auditory nerve or brain may have problems processing sound or other sensory input. For example:
Hidden hearing loss
Hidden hearing loss is defined as hearing loss that is not detectable on standard hearing tests, which focus on problems in the ear. Hidden hearing loss is not a problem with the ears, on the contrary, it comes from the brain.
Auditory Processing Disorders (APD)
For some people, hearing but not understanding can signal auditory processing disorder (APD). This means that the nervous system, and not the ears, has difficulty understanding sounds coming from the ears. APD is often diagnosed in children, but it can also be diagnosed in adults.
Attention deficit disorder (ADD)
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also make it difficult to understand, in that the brain cannot quite keep up with all incoming sensory input, including and sometimes especially noise. If you have undiagnosed and untreated ADD, you can pass a hearing test without a problem, but you feel like you can’t understand people or have trouble keeping up with conversations.
Either way, a hearing aid can help a person with ADD or ADD focus on the conversation they most want to hear, allowing them to amplify the voice of their preferred speaker (such as a teacher). It should be noted that some people may have ADD or autism and auditory processing disorder.
Don’t accept difficult hearing
If your hearing test shows hearing loss, hearing aids can amplify the highs you missed without amplifying the bass sounds. Once you start wearing hearing aids you will notice an improvement in speech understanding and you may even notice that you hear some long forgotten sounds. For example, some new hearing aid wearers are pleasantly surprised to hear the gentle chirping of songbirds for the first time in years. You will again be able to hear the beep of your microwave, the flashing of your car and the ringing of your telephone.
If you can hear, but cannot understand, you are not alone. This is what hearing care professionals hear from their patients almost every day, and they are highly skilled at getting to the root of the problem, listening to your concerns, and finding a solution that meets your needs. Don’t give up on conversations at work, home, and play. Find a hearing center near you through our directory and call today.