Many people struggle to understand conversation because of noise damage.
Next time you pass that drill on your street, cover your ears. Even better, bring ear plugs.
Daily noise pollution damages us more than we know.
Scientists have recognized for about a decade that a powerful blast of noise can shut down synapses in your brain that help you understand a conversation. This isn’t ordinary hearing loss related to age. In fact, in a study of more than 100,000 patient records from a 16-year period, about 10 percent of patients who visited the audiology clinic at Massachusetts Eye and Ear had a normal audiogram. Many probably suffered from what audiologists call “hidden hearing loss,” often related to loud noises.
A woman I’ll call Alice has struggled with her hearing for her entire adult life. Recently, she told me, she dared to go to a party and stood in a cluster of three in a room of 15 people, a reunion of her college classmates. “I was right next to them and I couldn’t hear one word,” she said. “I eventually asked one to go into a room with just a few people, and we were sitting but I had to move my chair closer and lean forward. I said, ‘I’m sorry if I seem like I’m sitting in your lap.’”
Alice first went to an audiologist to check her hearing when she was only 20. Her audiologist told her that her hearing was normal, but suggested that she might have an “attention problem.”
But Alice can hear a whisper in a quiet place; she only has trouble understanding what audiologists call “speech in noise,” conversation in groups or noisy places. As background noise in restaurants became steadily louder, she looked for quiet restaurants. Large parties “lost their appeal,” she said. She became a therapist. She explained, “It’s a wonderful profession because it’s just me and another person and if I can’t hear them, I say ‘What?’”
She had her second audiogram a year ago, decades after the first. Again, her hearing was normal and the audiologist explained her difficulties as an “auditory processing problem.” She took her audiogram to Costco’s hearing aid department but was told that because her hearing was in the normal range, the store wouldn’t sell her an aid.
So what’s going on?