Understanding speech in loud places can become a tiring chore for those with hearing loss. Why? Because they have to listen harder. All too often people are unaware that moving from listening effort to listening fatigue actually undermines their quality of life and productivity.
For those with healthy hearing, understanding speech in noise or focusing on a particular instrument in an orchestra is a smooth and mostly effortless process. The brain has the ability to filter out undesirable noises and can focus on the sounds that the listener actually wants to hear – speech, music, environmental noises etc.
However, in those with hearing loss the brain has problems with speedy multitasking. It struggles to interpret confused sound messages that are weak, unclear and generally of poor quality. Automatic hearing processing slows and the listener now has to compensate.
In a loud environment, people with hearing loss strain to hear. It takes a lot of effort to concentrate, lipread and reconcile the speaker’s body language with what one “believes” was said. Sometimes people actually shut their eyes in order to zero in on sound. The physical and mental energy that is spent on trying to understand speech is no longer available for other tasks. Trying to ease communication is an ongoing challenge that requires accommodation from conversation partners and coworkers.
Imagine working a full shift in a busy office. After so many garbled phone conversations, attending office meetings in large sound-filled rooms and listening to grainy, halting webinars anybody will be tired. Those with hearing challenges are exhausted. The greater the degree of hearing loss, the greater the listening effort and the resulting fatigue. Good motivation not to let hearing loss get worse!
Intense and prolonged listening effort leads to overwhelming fatigue, stress and anxiety. Evening meetings or get-togethers are no longer an option. I used to come home from work and collapse in the chair, barely able to attend to all the other duties that still awaited me.
Reduced energy levels coupled with mounting tiredness can lead to errors and accidents and to decreased productivity on and off the job. Social isolation is yet another consequence of listening fatigue, which has a way of taking the fun out of family and entertainment events.
In an attempt to help ease their impact, researchers are looking into the exact mechanics of listening effort and fatigue. They are trying to find ways to measure these effects scientifically. Any new insights will be of great value for normalizing communication for the hearing challenged.
Meanwhile, hearing aid manufacturers are doing their best to help people manage their listening environment. Background noise suppression and microphones with narrower directional focus make it easier for the brain to sort out verbal messages—which lessens the intense listening effort and therefore fatigue.
In the end…what to do
That said, many people with hearing loss do not realize how much their listening struggles affect their daily lives. It is important for all of us to have the discussion about listening assistance with the hearing specialist. It does not always have to be budget-breaking hearing aids. Learn about assistive technology and even phone apps that can help tune sound and spare energy levels.
Most of all, don’t let hearing loss get worse. Prevent more loss by protecting the ears from excessive sound levels, a leading cause of hearing damage worldwide. Every bit of hearing that we save helps the brain save energy. And that is good!
To learn about ears and hearing, please see my book on hearing loss: What Did You Say? An Unexpected Journey into the World of Hearing Loss, now in its second updated edition. Sharing my story and what I had to learn the hard way