When you think about hearing loss, what comes to mind? Do you think of an old, grumpy man complaining that, “Kids these days are always mumbling?” Or a little, old lady sitting in front of the TV with the volume blaring? While these may be accurate (and dramatic) pictures of more advanced hearing loss, the reality is that hearing loss can be much more subtle than this.
When asked, people experiencing more severe hearing loss said the things they missed hearing the most were some of the quietest sounds. Pillow talk. A grandchild whispering in their ear. Raindrops on the roof. Birds chirping in the trees. Ocean waves crashing on a beach. Sadly, when you start to lose your hearing, these quieter noises are the sounds that disappear first.
Most people start to lose their hearing in early adulthood. It typically happens so gradually that it’s hard to detect. In the first stages of hearing loss, you usually start to lose high frequency sounds. High frequency hearing loss distorts sound, which makes speech difficult to understand, even if it you can still hear it. That’s why it’s so hard to detect – because most people can still hear conversations. It just becomes more difficult to understand what’s actually being said.
Why high frequency hearing loss?
When we hear something, sound waves (or air vibrations) stimulate hair cells in our inner ear. These hair cells then convert the vibrations into electrical impulses, which are sent through the auditory nerve to the brain. Our hair cells begin to degenerate with aging, starting with those closest to the outer ear. These are the hair cells responsible for processing higher frequency sounds, hence why these sounds are the first to go.
What are considered high frequency noises?
What exactly are you missing out on in these first stages of hearing loss? Any high-pitched voices like women or children become difficult to understand. While you can hear words being spoken, it becomes harder to comprehend exactly what’s being spoken. Remember that hearing and understanding are two very different things.
Consonants are typically higher-pitched than vowel sounds, so the loss of high frequencies can make it difficult to tell consonant sounds apart. This is what causes speech to sound muddled and, in some cases, beyond comprehension.
While you may quickly notice that you’re having difficulty hearing your wife or grandchild speaking, it might take a while to realize that you can no longer hear rustling leaves or falling rain or chirping birds. These are all high frequency noises, along with:
- A clock ticking
- A cat purring
- Ocean waves
- A stream
- Falling rain
Can you imagine never hearing these sounds again? This is why it’s so important to both prevent hearing loss and treat hearing loss early on. It typically takes 7 years before a person experiencing hearing loss seeks treatment. Imagine how many quiet conversations, intimate whispers and peaceful sounds you could miss out on in that time!
What can you do to treat or prevent?
Hearing aids help to amplify the noises around you. They don’t just make things louder. They also help you distinguish between sounds so that speech is clearer. Hearing aid technology has come a long way. If you notice that you can no longer hear some of these softer sounds, or that you’re having difficulty understanding conversations, make an appointment to get your hearing checked.
While hearing aids can help make some of these lost frequencies audible again, they’re not perfect. The best thing you can do to protect yourself from hearing loss? Prevent it. Here are a few helpful tips to protect your hearing:
- Limit situations where you need to shout to be heard (think blow dryers and kitchen blenders).
- Limit your time near noisy machinery
- Wear protective ear muffs if possible
- Avoid sitting near speakers at loud performances
- Keep the volume down when listening to recorded music, videos or games (especially with headphones or ear buds)
- Bust out the earplugs when you need to