Women better than men at explaining hearing loss

Women with hearing loss may be more likely than men to explain the condition to others in a way that also helps to foster communication, a U.S. study suggests.

Researchers surveyed 337 patients at a hearing clinic in Massachusetts to find out how hearing loss impacted their daily lives and what, if anything, they tended to tell others about their condition.

Women were more than twice as likely as men to report telling people not just about their hearing challenges, but about how to help them. Patients were also more than twice as likely to engage in these conversations about hearing loss if they had tried before and been met with support and accommodations.

Examples of helpful disclosures include saying, "I don't hear as well out of my right ear. Please walk on my left side."

Men, in contrast, tended to favor a direct disclosure of hearing loss without any elaboration about how it impacts their ability to communicate or how others might help, the study found.

Such direct disclosure without being helpful might include simply saying "I am hard of hearing" or recounting the story of how hearing was lost.

The women's approach is better because it can help limit how much hearing loss negatively impacts patients' lives, study authors Jessica West and Konstantina Stankovic, colleagues at Harvard University and Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, said by email.

"This strategy would provide communication partners with a simple, straight-forward explanation of the hearing loss while highlighting ways in which communication partners can help the person with hearing loss to hear better in the situation," West and Stankovic said. "It focuses on how to improve the communicative interaction rather than on the hearing loss itself."

A third strategy used by some hearing impaired patients in the study was not disclosing the problem at all, just saying something such as, "I can't hear you, speak up."

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Overall, about 29 percent of the patients surveyed by the research team had mild hearing loss, while 40 percent had moderate impairment and 30 percent had severe or profound difficulties.

Most of them had lived with hearing loss for more than five years, and many had challenges for more than 16 years.

Roughly half of the patients had compromised word recognition and at least moderate hearing loss in their worse ear.

Slightly more than one third of the participants said they rarely if ever told people about their hearing loss, while about 14 percent shared the information with people all or most of the time.

Severity of hearing loss didn't appear to influence how people chose to disclose the condition to others.

Because the small study was done at a specialized hearing clinic, it's possible the patients' responses might not be representative of all people with hearing loss, the authors acknowledge in the journal Ear and Hearing. The study also wasn't designed to measure the effectiveness of specific phrases people use to disclose their hearing loss.

Even so, the findings highlight the need for clinicians to help patients develop strategies, something like an "elevator pitch," that they can comfortably deploy when they need to disclose their hearing loss to improve communication, said Samuel Atcherson, an audiology researcher at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"Clinicians can help individuals with hearing loss navigate this aspect of their life whether or not they choose to use hearing technology," Atcherson, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.

This help, along with screening to detect undiagnosed hearing loss, is essential because about 20 percent of the population has hearing loss, noted Dr. Michael McKee, a researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who wasn't involved in the study.

That's because hearing loss can impact many other aspects of life, including mental health, relationship quality, cognition, and health literacy, McKee said by email.