Why Can I Hear But Not Understand?

By Frank Goldberg, HAS, BC-HIS
“The Hearing Aid Guru” Nationally Board Certified in Hearing Instrument Sciences

There are several types of hearing loss caused by a variety of conditions and circumstances. Barring anything medically treatable, the most common type of hearing loss amongst the group is nerve damage, particularly in the high frequencies or high pitched range of sound often with normal hearing in the lower frequencies.

This type of loss is called high frequency, or sensorineural, hearing loss. The nerves in the inner ear, known as the cochlea, begin to die off due to the aging process similar in nature to macular degeneration of the eye. There are many reasons for this occurrence. Some of the most common causes are genetic predisposition (family history), exposure to loud sound from either one traumatic event or continuous exposure over long periods like military service or industrial environs, a vast array of medications and other chemicals, some childhood illnesses and some adult illnesses acquired by the mother while pregnant like measles.

Regardless of cause, the common thread is the symptom of the condition. There is a myriad of symptoms so let’s take a look at the most often experienced.

  • Patients complain that they can hear a speaker but do not catch all the words. In many instances, words are confused with like sounding words and so patients may answer questions incorrectly because they heard the question differently.
  • Patients withdraw from conversation altogether due to embarrassment and potentially become social recluses which can be a stepping stone to isolation and depression.
  • Patients complain that people mumble and don’t speak as clearly as they used to.
  • Patients ask people to repeat themselves to get a second chance at hearing correctly.
  • Patients find conversation much easier face-to-face especially in a quiet setting.
  • Patients have great difficulty in noisy settings like dining rooms or restaurants.
  • Patients will have a tendency to speak loader than normal and were probably told so.
  • Patients were told they play the T.V. too loud.
  • Patients miss the ringing of the phone and/or door chime.
  • Patients exhibit the same problems on the telephone.

So, what is the root cause for all of these symptoms? Believe it or not, it’s the alphabet and the way words are constructed utilizing it. High frequency loss produces the inability to hear soft, high pitch sounds so let’s investigate why this is an issue.

Speech, or a word, is comprised of two elements; vowels and consonants. Vowels, A-E-I-O-U, are the most powerful sounds in the alphabet and are all low frequency in nature where patients generally hear normally. These sounds are the only alphabetic sounds that emanate from the diaphragm and therefore are powerful sounds that can be easily projected during speech. Unfortunately, the consonants do not fall into this category. There are only five vowels which leaves twenty-one consonants. All or most of the consonants are high in pitch but soft in volume because these sounds are created solely with the mouth and are non-projectable as they have no force behind them from the diaphragm. The end result for the patient is hearing the vowel portion of the word clearly but missing the consonant portion most of the time. The patient hears half the word but misses the other half. Now they have to guess at the word, sometimes correctly, sometimes not. Visualizing the speaker helps as the patient can see the lips and interpret the conversation better.

Unfortunately, most words begin and end with consonant letters or consonant sounds. With the inability to hear these letters, the patient losses the ability to separate words creating the mumbling effect. The patient hears all the vowels simply in succession and it sounds like one big jumble.

Hearing aids can help immeasurably as a treatment for this condition. I know as I have been wearing hearing aids for 35 years. Patients feel embarrassed needing hearing aids as they envision the big bulky whistling things their grandfather had. Not the case today. Hearing aids are small, sophisticated, discreet, functional and, not overstated, life altering. If this commentary hit home with you, do something about it. It will be a relief for you and your family.

“The Hearing Aid Guru” Frank Goldberg, HAS, BC-HIS is President of Frank Goldberg PA and owner/operator of www.DiscountHearingAidofAmerica.com, offering financial relief to consumers for premium hearing aids nationwide at discounted prices. Also operates Mobile Hearing Aid Service locally in South Florida providing full service help “at-home”. Frank has been in the industry and a hearing aid wearer for over 30 years.

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