It is important to note that hearing words incorrectly is more common than you may think. Chance are that being able to hear but not understand is caused by a condition called sloping high-frequency hearing loss. If this is the case, it is a very treatable type of hearing loss. Most people diagnosed with sloping high frequency hearing loss can regain most of their hearing and are able to more fully understand spoken language with proper medical intervention.
First things first: remember when examining this complaint―hearing words incorrectly―that hearing involves not only our ears but also our brain. Sound waves reach our brain through the physical act of hearing. Once the sound waves reach the brain, it uses the information that has reached it to interpret sound and give it meaning.
Additionally, we hear sounds across a wide range frequencies. The frequency, or pitch, of a sound determines how “high” or “low” we think of the sound. Low-frequency sounds are sounds we would consider having a more bass-like quality to them, like a dog barking or a lawn mower. High-frequency sounds are more tenor-like and include sounds such as birds chirping or a child’s squeal. However, human speech contains both high and low-pitched sounds within it. For example, most vowels―and consonants like “j” and “z” ― resonate at a lower frequency. Sounds like “f” and “th” are, one the other hand, high-frequency sounds.
If one has sloping high frequency hearing loss, the line that divides unaffected versus affected hearing passes through the frequency range of human speech. This means when you are hearing words incorrectly in this scenario, your brain is not receiving all the signals it needs to fully understand the incoming language. To take a page from Dr. Seuss, differentiating words like “here” from “there” or “house” from “mouse” becomes difficult, if not impossible. Think of it like trying to read a news article, but half the letters are missing from the page. You can make out some words, perhaps even whole sentences with context clues, but you’re sure to miss several details.
Because of the way our inner ears are structured, often higher-pitched sounds are the first to deteriorate. This is especially common in presbycusis, a type of gradual hearing loss that occurs as people grow older. The good news is that this condition is very treatable, most often using hearing aids. The first step towards fully hearing and understanding your loved ones again is to book an appointment with a hearing specialist. They will be able to determine if you do have a form of hearing loss and accurately map what frequencies are most in need of attention. You and your hearing specialist will, more than likely, be able to chart a course of treatment to help you once again make the most out of your conversations.