By Ross Cushing, Au.D.

Imagine being out at a restaurant with a group of friends and everyone is talking and laughing- everyone except you. You sit and strain to listen but you can’t understand what anyone is saying over the background noise of the restaurant. You feel isolated even though you are surrounded by friends. You feel frustrated because it seems like no one else is having trouble hearing. You feel exhausted and stressed out from straining to hear. You feel embarrassed asking people to repeat nearly everything they say to you. This situation may sound familiar to many people, but they may not realize that being unable to understand a conversation when there is a lot of background noise is among the first signs that hearing loss might be present.

New patients frequently tell me “I can hear fine, I just have trouble when there is background noise.” Almost all of these people will end up having some degree of hearing loss and will be very good candidates for hearing aids. They also are candidates for additional help who may often be overlooked by the hearing healthcare professional. The most practical baseline solution for hearing better in background noise is to use two hearing aids that have directional microphones, digital signal processing, and digital noise reduction. These hearing aids will help in a noisy restaurant because they will focus toward the person speaking and not on the noise of the crowd. They enhance speech as well as BZlogBfilter background noise. This type of hearing device significantly improves the ability to hear in noisy environments and is the first recommended step to help. But those of you reading this probably already know that.

So here are two other approaches that everyone with a problem hearing in background noise should be aware of.

First, you should know that auditory training works. Auditory training is essentially physical therapy for your brain; it requires active participation in various listening tasks. There are two products available that I recommend for auditory training. One is called LACE (Listening and Communication Enhancement), a program by Neurotone (on DVD or online, from $79). A 2011 study in the journal Cerebral Cortex found that LACE showed “significant improvements in speech-in-noise” ability. Hear Coach, by Starkey, is the other auditory training program. This is a free app for the iPad or iPhone. Hear Coach is a basic program for those interested in trying out auditory training, while using the convenience and ease of portable Apple devices. The suite of basic games is designed to sharpen cognitive and auditory skills. Both programs have the ability to track your progress so you can chart your improvement over time. They teach you to “hear smarter” in noise.

Second, you should know that an FM system, or remote microphone system, can also help you understand speech in noisy situations. An FM system has a portable microphone that can receive an audio signal (speech) and transmit that signal directly into the listener’s hearing aids for a clear signal. FM systems are very small and work amazingly well, changing hearing in a noisy environment almost into hearing a quiet room. The cost starts at a few hundred dollars and increases depending on the level of sophistication and type of hearing aids they are used with. Ready to take the next steps? Try auditory training for a few weeks and consider an FM system to relieve your anxiety about hearing in noisy situations.

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