Our patients oftentimes ask us why they seem to have greater difficulty hearing in crowded areas than in other situations. When they are talking to people one-on-one, or in small groups of people there is no problem, and they seem to hear just fine. Not so in crowded situations. Whether in large public space outdoors such as a football game or indoors at a party, they report being unable to distinguish the speakers’ voice over the background noise. This is true even when the speaker is close by and addressing them directly. The same people that have difficulty with crowds, will often also express that they find it challenging to hear and distinguish certain consonants especially S, F, and H.
If this situation sounds familiar to you, it may be an indication that you have suffered some degree of high-frequency hearing loss. When describing human speech, audiologists define the 3000 to 8000 Hz range as high-frequency. This is the range that the H, F, and S sounds typically fall into. In a crowd, what you hear is a mixture of frequencies, with the high frequencies of human speech “competing” with lower-frequency sounds such as music or the noise of people walking or dancing. People with high-frequency hearing loss tend to perceive the lower frequencies – in this case, the noise – as sounding louder than the higher frequencies, which they are now having more trouble hearing.
High-frequency hearing loss is quite common. Some studies have found that as much as 18 percent of the population is affected. High-frequency hearing loss is normal with aging, but is increasingly being diagnosed in younger adults too. Audiologists suspect this may come from repeated exposure to loud music especially through personal headphones. Other factors that can cause hearing loss include genetics, exposure to toxic drugs (including some chemotherapy agents), diabetes, and other diseases.
The important thing to remember is that if you have suffered some degree of high-frequency hearing loss, it can be effectively treated. Hearing aids can be adjusted to amplify the higher frequencies and suppress lower frequencies, with the result that you can hear voices better in crowded rooms.
The first step is to visit one of our specialists, and make sure that the problem is caused by a loss of hearing. Our audiologist can perform a variety of tests to identify the underlying cause of the problem and recommend the best treatment options for your specific situation.