How Your Home Can Affect Your Hearing
You may need hearing aids — or just new carpeting or curtains
When audiologist Erika Shakespeare and her husband, Brian, moved into an old farmhouse several years ago, their relationship suffered. "My husband and I have normal hearing, but when we moved into that house, we were starting to argue all the time, because we weren't hearing each other as well as we used to in our old environment," she says.
Fortunately, Shakespeare, who owns Audiology & Hearing Aid Associates in La Grande, Ore., was able to diagnose the problem. The couple didn't need hearing aids. Instead, they needed curtains on the windows. And canvas-mounted photos on the walls. And throw rugs on the echoey hardwood floors.
"Those were the three big winners for us in that environment," she says.
"Minimalism is going to result in minimalistic conversation."
Other materials that can help are carpets, bookcases, overstuffed sofas, throw pillows and wainscoting — basically anything that will absorb sound.
"There's something to be said for that old 1970s wood paneling," she says. "It's not real pretty, but my goodness, it's acoustically fantastic."
Wood paneling isn't the only thing that's gone out of style in recent years. Many homes today feature open floor plans, cathedral ceilings and Marie Kondo-inspired minimalist décor, all of which can make conversation hard for people with hearing loss.
"Minimalism is going to result in minimalistic conversation," Shakespeare says. "Visually warm spaces help to foster communication because you can hear better when there's not a bunch of echoey reverb."
How Your House May Be Hurting Your Ears
If you have normal hearing, you probably adapt pretty well to echoey reverberations (aside perhaps from places like noisy restaurants), but that's not the case if you have hearing loss. One reason is that hearing loss affects how quickly you process the sound you're hearing.
"It takes longer for the brain to process how the sound is occurring in the space," Shakespeare says. "So when you also have reverberation, where sound is bouncing around, and you're already having this delay in temporal processing, it makes it that much worse."
And hearing aids don't necessarily help, because they magnify all sounds, not just those you actually want to hear.
"Even the most sophisticated of hearing aids do a poor job of managing reverberant backgrounds," she says. "I will say that they're way better than they were twenty years ago when I first started working with hearing aids, but they still kind of stink in that area, because it's our brain that handles that processing, not the technology."
Of course, echoes aren't the only reason a house can be noisy. "There's some background noise from heating and cooling systems, or people like to have television on in the background or a radio or something like that while they're having conversations, and it just makes it really difficult to hear and understand each other," says Brian Atkinson, client development manager for ABD Engineering & Design in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Calling in the Experts
Companies like the one Atkinson works for focus on three areas of acoustics: room acoustics (the way sound bounces around like a super ball), noise transfer (the way sound moves from one space to another, including from outside) and mechanical noise (the sound generated by appliances and HVAC systems).
Although these firms are best known for improving the acoustics in concert halls, recording studios and houses of worship, many also work on private homes, either during construction or afterwards. "We can make things quieter, or we can make things louder, depending on which of our services you use," Atkinson says.
As you might expect, acoustical engineers take a scientific approach to optimizing a home's sound environment. They perform acoustical measurements, analyze the data, and then make recommendations on what materials to use and where.
"We're not trying to turn every living room into a recording studio, just trying to bring the noise level down and reduce the number of bounces that super ball takes, so to speak," Atkinson says.
Simple — And Not-So-Simple — Solutions
Perhaps not surprisingly, the best time to address your home's acoustics is during new construction or remodeling. "When you're designing the house, designing your renovation, that's a great time to get us involved early so that we can work with your architect and with your builder," Atkinson says.
Products that consultants might recommend include acoustic underlayment for floors, acoustic ceiling panels, resilient walls (where the drywall isn't rigidly connected to the wall studs) and flexible plumbing connections.
"The treatment materials are fairly inexpensive until you get into some of the really high-end stuff; thirty to forty dollars per square foot or more is not unusual for products like that," he says. "But you can also get products that are four dollars per square foot; there are lots of options."
"We're not trying to turn every living room into a recording studio, just trying to bring the noise level down and reduce the number of bounces that super ball takes, so to speak."
Even if you don't want to spend big bucks, you can still improve your home's acoustics, as Shakespeare's experience shows. And the result can be both acoustically and aesthetically pleasing.
"Sometimes, interior designers work with us to say, 'I need to know how many square feet of what material I need to put where,' and then I'll figure out how to make it look pretty," Atkinson says.
If you need more than a DIY (Do It Yourself) solution, he recommends contracting with a professional engineering firm. "The legitimate firms who do not sell products are all members of the National Council of Acoustical Consultants," he says. Similarly, the best vendors of acoustical products will recommend that customers work with a qualified consultant to make sure they're getting the right materials in the right quantities.
Atkinson himself is beginning to experience some hearing loss, so he's taken steps to improve his own home's acoustics. For example, he hung a tapestry in his great room to help absorb sound.
"I took it off the wall just an inch or so, so that the sound could go into it and penetrate it," he says. "I could have taken additional steps and put it in a frame with insulation behind it."
And if he needs to take those or other steps later, he'll know just what to do to keep super balls of sound from bouncing all over his house.