Over 80% of 40-64 year olds struggle to hear in noise, this is often referred to as the “Cocktail Party Problem”. Despite this, the research we’ve done at AudioTelligence tells us that very few people either understand the condition or are able to find solutions that actually work. As part of our mission to help people hear more clearly, we’d like everyone to understand how the “Cocktail Party Problem” affects us all.
No – not cells in the hair on your head. We’re talking here about the hair cells in your ears! Your inner ears each have around 15,000 tiny cells with structures on them that look like hairs under the microscope – hence their name ‘hair cells’. The hair cells are very sensitive to tiny vibrations in the air. These vibrations are caused by sound waves; they are translated into electrical impulses that are transmitted to your brain by auditory nerves. Your brain then interprets the electrical signals and you hear the sound and identify it as a voice or music or a car engine….
When the hair cells and auditory nerves work together properly, they help you to block out background noise and hear the conversation of the people around you. But in the process of losing hearing, two things happen: damage to the hair cells of the inner ear, and a disconnect between the auditory nerves and the hair cells.
As we get older, the hair cells gradually wither away; the fewer hair cells, the less sensitive your ear is to the vibrations caused by sound waves, and the less you can hear. The deterioration of the hair cells is inevitable with age, and is not reversible – hair cells cannot regrow.
However, before hearing loss affects the hair cells, it first impacts fibres located in the auditory nerves carrying information from the hair cells, but only those carrying information for high sound levels. The detail and accuracy of the information sent to your brain is affected, so sounds can seem muffled or hard to interpret. This explains why hearing loss affects the quality of the sound you hear as well as the amount you can hear, and really impacts your ability to hear speech in noisy surroundings.
Someone who struggles to hear in noise, may be able to hear normally in a quiet environment. Often they are unaware that they are gradually losing their hearing, and don’t seek an intervention. Or if they do have a hearing test, their issue may be missed. Why is this?
It should be easy to detect this problem. But it isn’t – because people with this problem often have normal results in a standard hearing tests. Standard hearing tests (‘audiograms’) typically consist of the audiologist measuring the response of your inner ear hair cells to various sounds to see if they are damaged.
Unfortunately, even with hair cell damage, it’s possible to still pass one of these audiograms, as the test is done in a quiet environment. And the test normally uses low-volume frequencies which don’t cause any response in the auditory nerve fibres. Some audiologists have now added speech in noise tests to their repertoire, but as yet this is not required or, indeed, very common.
In the meantime, many people find it difficult to follow conversations in noisy places, and the effort of trying to hear, and the embarrassment of constantly asking people to repeat themselves, can lead to some people becoming reluctant to participate in social occasions.
As part of the ageing process, we will all find it increasingly hard to chat to friends when music is playing and when the background chatter surrounds us – which may be one of the reasons older people often stop going to bars and pubs.
At AudioTelligence we think it’s time to reclaim our social lives, embrace the noisy world around us and get back out to pubs and cafés. That’s why we have developed our tabletop assistive listening device, Orsana™, which is designed to make conversation easy and reduce the frustration of those noisy social get-togethers.