First things first: hearing words incorrectly is not uncommon. It is very likely that hearing but not understanding words is due to a condition called sloping high-frequency hearing loss. If that is the case, know that it is a highly-treatable form of hearing loss. If you are diagnosed with sloping high frequency hearing loss, you will most likely be able to regain a good amount of your hearing and more fully understand spoken language with proper medical intervention.
It’s important to remember when examining this particular complaint―of hearing words incorrectly―that hearing involves not only our ears but also our brain. First, sound waves need to be able to reach our brain through the physical act of hearing. From there, the brain uses the information that has reached it to interpret sound and give it meaning.
Additionally, we hear across a whole range of both low and high frequency sounds. 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. What may be slightly less obvious, however, is that human speech contains both high and low-pitched sounds within it. In speech, 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.
What often happens in sloping high frequency hearing loss is that the line that divides unaffected versus affected hearing passes through the frequency range of human speech. Basically, 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 plain 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 a number of the details.
Because of the way our inner ears are structured, often times 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 through the use of 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.