Are there hearing aids that separate sounds? I hear everything all at once…

Are there hearing aids that separate sounds? I hear everything all at once and can’t hear speech with background noise. I am HoH. I want to ask my audiologist, but I’m worried I will sound dumb.

This is a question I received on Quora. My response was as follows:

Yes indeed there are! Basic hearing aids will amplify all sound inputs equally, so loud background noise that’s roughly the same volume as the person in front of you will be interfering with your ability to pick out his/her voice. They will amplify to your required hearing loss pattern, but they are not capable of separating out sounds for you, you must rely on your brain’s processing and/or lip reading in the same way as a normal-hearing person does. If you’re hard of hearing due to sensorineural (inner ear) loss, like most of us are, you are likely to have specific problems in filtering out background sounds, because that type of loss makes things ‘blurry’. But I digress…

Advanced hearing aids, as a minimum, use directional microphones to ‘focus’ on sound in front of you. Very advanced hearing aids have directional microphones plus advanced sound processing, which can recognise the pattern of background noise and amplify it at a different level to a speaker’s voice. This is known as signal to noise ratio. The best aids are capable of changing this by around 20dB, so they create a 20dB difference between the voice in front of you, and the competing background noise. They support your hearing by applying this help before the sound reaches your brain, so the brain doesn’t need to use as many resources to filter out the sound. Ultimately you will find it easier to hear and be less tired at the end of that conversation in the restaurant etc. It’s not necessarily noticeable (in fact it shouldn’t be noticeable, it should seem natural), you will just find it easier.

If you bought your aids privately, your audiologist should have explained these differences to you and helped you select the right level of aid technology for your lifestyle. If you got them via free healthcare such as the NHS, they are likely of the more basic variety, and you may not be able to improve on it, although it is always worth asking if anything can be improved. For instance, although basic aids may not be able to change their directionality, they sometimes have two microphones and the one at the back can be switched off to create a basic form of directionality.

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