Understanding Background Noise Management and Hearing Aids

A dummy inside a sound treated chamber used to measure sound

Today we are lifting the lid on background noise and hearing aids. It’s a topic many of you might relate to or have wondered about, “Why can’t hearing aids filter out background noise?”

It’s definitely a topic that’s comes up in the clinic, and it’s somewhat complex. I’ll try to clarify the key points to help you understand the technology’s strengths and limitations available. In doing so you’ll be better equipped for dealing with background noise and appreciate why audiology at a clinic like A Better Ear, isn’t hearing aid dispensing. Let’s get cracking!

Managing Background Noise and Hearing Aids: A Comprehensive Guide

The first thing to understand is that background noise is always present, whether we like it or not. When people with hearing loss first use hearing aids, or when long-term users don’t wear them consistently, they hear sounds they’d forgotten about. In fact, these sounds demand their attention. To understand why this occurs, I need to quickly explain what we audiologists call “acclimatisation.”

Hearing aids and acclimatisation

Acclimatisation with hearing aids describes the adjustment period a wearer experiences when first wearing hearing aids. The period of time required for acclimatisation can vary considerably between individuals due to a variety of clinical factors. Initially, wearers will likely find amplified ‘background sounds’ to be unusually loud and intrusive. However, with time, the brain adapts, filtering out these disruptive noises, allowing wearers to enjoy the benefits of hearing rehabilitation with less distractions. Consistent daily use of hearing aids speeds up the adaptation process and resulting in overall comfort and satisfaction when wearing them.

What is background noise?

Background noise is essentially a term we use for “unwanted sounds”. In the natural environment, sounds are just sounds, and there are plenty of them! The technology processing these sounds in a hearing aid is extraordinarily powerful, yet it can’t always distinguish between what you want to hear and what you’d rather not. To illustrate, we need to make a distinction between types of undesirable sounds.

Consider, for instance, attempting to listen to a soft voice across the table while a louder one is right next to you. This is sometimes described as unwanted background noise. But what is actually happening is the hearing aids are picking up the loudest speech sound and focussing on that. As far as the hearing aid is concerned, it’s working as expected.

Three people in conversation. One of them invading the personal space of the others.
Some noises are annoying!

On the other hand, the sound of a ticking clock in a quiet room, heels on a hard wooden floor, or rainbow lorikeets having a party in the eucalypts, are all environmental noises that normally fill the ambient sound spectrum of daily life. These exist whether you like them or not.

Or perhaps you are thinking of the general hubbub of 40 people all eating, drinking, and talking at the same time in a small room with high ceilings and no soft furnishings. Again, “background noise”.

Often, when people complain of “too much background noise” it’s a combination of each of these. Total elimination of unwanted sounds isn’t possible under normal living conditions. However, hearing aids are made to pick up speech, separate it from other noise, and then discreetly amplify a specific range of sounds based on your needs. The overall goal is of course to help you hear conversations better.

How Do Hearing Aids Manage Background Noise?

Hearing aids employ various technologies such as directional microphones and noise reduction programming to effectively manage background noise.

If you closely examine a more advanced hearing aid, you’ll see that it has microphone ports on both sides of the device. Usually, they are located at the top, and sometimes also lower down. These directional microphones work by picking up sound from different directions. Once captured however, they aren’t all simply mixed together by the hearing aid. No, they are each processed separately and then mixed according to a variety of processing algorithms. This gives the hearing aid more control over the incoming sound, and consequently outgoing sound. It allows the aid to adapt its performance according to the circumstances required at any given time, focussing on sound directly in front of you and suppressing sounds from the side and behind in noisy environments, for example.

A rainbow lorikeet hanging updside down from a tree with his mouth open.
“Sorry mate! That noise isn’t bothering you, is it?”

Hearing aid noise reduction programming is different. It works by using algorithms to distinguish between speech and “other sounds”, or “noise”. When noise is identified, the hearing aid reduces the amplification of this part of the signal. This doesn’t mean the noise disappears entirely, but it’s turned down. Why not just turn off noise entirely, you ask? Well, aggressive noise reduction is possible but because sounds are like the colours in a rainbow, and don’t sit in neat little packages labelled “speech”, “lorikeets”, “traffic noise” and “everything else”, there are trade-offs. Audiologists must balance speech benefits and a natural realistic sound. Pushing down broad swaths of the sound spectrum is likely to result in a very unsatisfying, unnatural, and impractical sound.

Brain Training with Hearing Aids

Handling unwanted noises isn’t solely about the technology involved, however. Training your brain is equally vital. Over time your brain gets used to having hearing loss. When hearing rehabilitation begins with a hearing aid, the brain gets used to hearing a noisy world again. It adapts, focussing your attention on the desirable sounds and ignoring the persistent but largely pointless noises that fill your day. It may take a while to get used to, but the increased auditory input provides benefits for balance as well as both hearing and brain health. Consistent evidence highlights that effective hearing rehabilitation improves mood, lessens feelings of isolation, strengthens social bonds and reduces the risk of falls.

So, do hearing aids really block out all the unwanted noise? The simple answer is no. While hearing aids are becoming smarter at reducing unwanted noise and enhancing speech sounds, a completely noise-free experience is not realistic because that is not how humans experience the world.

How to Reduce Background Noise?

At this stage you might be wondering, “How do I reduce the background noise on my hearing aids?” Different brands and models utilise specific proprietary technologies to manage the complaint of background noise differently. But despite what the marketing would have you believe; hearing aids aren’t just plug and play devices. If they were, you wouldn’t have a problem and there wouldn’t be a need for this article. A hearing aid must be fit – which means it must be explicitly calibrated not only to your unique hearing loss, but also to the reverberant characteristics of your ear canal. Importantly, it must also be fit to your level of listening comfort. Not everyone can take 100% of their prescribed amplification (and therefore 100% of their speech benefit). New hearing aid wearers will often need to work up to their prescribed output over time. That means the Audiologist will need to take the time to check and verify the hearing aids output, adjust acoustic couplings, adjust the physical fit and comfort. They do this to balance the clinically verified improvements to your speech understanding, with your individual expectations, tolerance, and satisfaction.

The Importance of Number of Channels

The number of channels in hearing aids is vital in dealing with background noise. When we talk about channels in hearing aids, we’re referring to the separate frequency ranges that the device can process. Think of them like the equaliser bands on a stereo, where each band represents a different pitch or frequency range. More channels mean the hearing aid can separately adjust more specific ranges of sound, allowing for more tailored and precise sound processing and amplification. This adjustment starts with your selection of device. At the fitting, the Audiologist should painstakingly adjust the output to match the loss in each ear. This is the foundation that allows the hearing aids automatic background noise functions to operate effectively.

A smiling man within the cockpit of a smal submarine deep under water.
Peace and quiet at last!

More channels allow for more refined adjustments to different frequencies, which helps in preserving the clarity of speech while minimising the interference of background noise. The additional channels are especially effective at improving speech whilst maintaining a natural sound with the challenges of a “steeply sloping” hearing loss associated with noise exposure.

More expensive models have more channels. However, investing in a premium hearing aid with numerous channels, only to have it calibrated quickly and automatically by software, is going to yield a device that underperforms. If you want to learn more about why it’s crucial to have your hearing aids meticulously tuned via Real Ear Measurements (REM’s) by a skilled and patient Audiologist, please read this article.

Realistic Expectations

Now for some bad news. Currently there is no cure for hearing loss. While hearing aids stimulate the auditory nerve and reduce the risk of dementia by improving brain health, you’re unlikely to hear as well as you did with healthy hearing.

For that reason, it important that you think carefully about what you want to achieve and consult with your audiologist to develop goals that are realistic and achievable.

Choosing the right audiologist, understanding your hearing loss in practical terms, and employing communication tactics can help you make informed changes to your daily routine for better listening. Working in partnership with your family and audiologist will maximise the benefits of investing in expert hearing care services.

Remember, hearing rehabilitation can help maximise your hearing potential, but it can’t bring back the hearing you had in your youth. Understanding this and being well informed will bring you improved peace of mind and satisfaction.

A Word of Caution

When meeting an audiologist, expect to work with them over the long term as your hearing and technology changes. If you already have hearing aids and you are faced with a situation where your current audiologist is unable to assist you, it may be worthwhile seeking a second opinion. Everyday, hearing aids are fit via automated processes, to save time. If this is the case with your fitting, the fitting clinician may not be skilled at real ear verification. Unfortunately, in the Redlands, there are providers that don’t have the knowledge, or the rigorous ongoing professional development required of Masters qualified Audiology. Don’t waste your time and money if you aren’t completely confident.

Remember, hearing care exists to serve you and your needs, so spend time with an impartial audiologist to ensure your interests are front and centre in the consultation. Make sure they have the technical expertise and equipment to deliver the hearing goals you have developed.

A sound treated room empty except a microphone and two studio monitors.
Sound is complex. Much more complex than this image. If they were really serious, they’d put a rug down.

Conclusion

Understanding and managing background noise with hearing aids is a complex but crucial subject. While complete elimination of unwanted sounds isn’t possible, hearing aids use various technologies like directional microphones and noise reduction programming to help you focus on what you want to hear. It’s also essential to understand that acclimatisation—your brain’s adjustment to new auditory inputs—is a significant part of the process. Your audiologist plays a critical role in fine-tuning your device through techniques like Real Ear Measurements, making it imperative to consult with a skilled professional for optimal results. Remember, hearing aids are a tool to maximise your hearing potential, not a cure for hearing loss. Balancing technology with realistic expectations will pave the way for a more satisfying auditory experience. So, if you find yourself struggling with background noise, don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion and always aim for a personalised, patient-centred approach to hearing care.

Be patient, stay positive, and embrace the journey to better hearing with an open heart and an inquisitive mind!

A Better Ear delivers adult hearing rehabilitation with expertise and empathy. We are commitment to patient-centred best practice and only engage the finest team so that you always see a specialist, not a salesperson. Get in contact with us for an impartial consultation.

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