Venus, Mars, and Hearing Loss

Hearing Loss and Gender Differences
Women acknowledge hearing loss differently than men. — Getty Images

We have long known that men and women talk differently. This includes the way they talk about hearing loss.

A 2015 study found considerable differences. Women were more than twice as likely as men to disclose the loss and offer helpful suggestions about how to talk to them. A woman might say, “I don’t hear well out of my right ear. Please walk on my left side.”

( For more suggestions on how to respond creatively and helpfully about your hearing loss see “How to Talk to Someone with a Hearing Loss.”)

Men tend to simply state that they are hard of hearing, and then offer an explanation about how they lost their hearing. One researcher commenting on the Harvard study suggested that men need to develop an “elevator pitch,” a strategy “that they can comfortably deploy when they need to disclose their hearing loss.”

The study, conducted by Jessica West and Konstantina Stankovic, colleagues at Harvard University and Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, suggests that the women’s approach is far more helpful in successful communication.

The women’s strategy gives “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,” they said. “It focuses on how to improve the communicative interaction rather than on the hearing loss itself.”

Men are almost twice as likely to have hearing loss as women, especially in the 20 to 69 age group, according to the the National Institute of Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

If men are twice as likely to have hearing loss as women, are they also twice as likely to use hearing aids? There is no really good study of this to date.  But how you respond to your hearing loss, with or without hearing aids, is crucial to successful communication.

There are other gender differences besides speech patterns that may influence communication. Men are less comfortable with sustained eye contact than women, and they are less comfortable showing emotion. These can affect the ability to speech-read, which is a substantial benefit to many with hearing loss.

The writer Gael Hannan has given several workshops on speech reading, including one called “Man-Lips: Men and Speechreading — Facing the Challenge.” She thinks there is a gender difference in speech reading success. Women do it better. Hannan has a hard time even getting men into her courses. She suggests that if you want to run a male-inclusive speech reading course, promote it as a “success strategy” and incorporate lots of gadgets.

What about those studies on hearing aid use? We see a lot of men with hearing aids, which might make you think men are more likely to wear hearing aids. But there are two reasons for that perception (or misperception). The first is that a hearing aid is more visible on a man with short hair or no hair at all. The second is that twice as many men as women have hearing loss.

But the fact is that we simply don’t know the ratio of hearing aid use in men and women. Two reputable studies in the past five years have found two different results.

A large 2011 Swiss study of 4979 adult male and 3410 adult female hearing aid users found that women were more likely to use their hearing aids regularly, and for longer periods during the day than men. The men were more likely to blame their non-use on the limited benefits they got from the hearing aid.

A more recent study of hearing aid use in the United States among older adults found that men said they used their hearing aids at about the same rate that women said they did. But it’s important to remember that this is self-report. We all know the temptation to answer the way you think you should answer. Only about one third of the respondents who could benefit from hearing aids had them.  The Swiss study also relied on self-report but added hearing loss data and hearing aid technical information, which may have affected the results.

The bottom line for understanding speech better: talk more like a woman, behave more like a woman and wear your hearing aids.

 

This article first appeared in a slightly different form on AARP Hearing Health on January 24, 2017

11 thoughts on “Venus, Mars, and Hearing Loss

  1. Health care providers, hearing clinics and hearing aid purveyors should think about providing educational information to those who are dealing with hearing loss. This could be done in a brochure. Still more effective is a short counseling session with practice, as follows.

    A few years ago I took a short course offered at the Bainbridge Island Library, conducted by a counselor who had herself undergone sudden unexpected and rapid loss of hearing in her late 30s — and was determined to cope with it immediately. She researched, then devised a very practical course for teaching people how to cope, starting with informing those they lived and worked with of their hearinf loss. She also suggested using a hand gesture to draw attention of those speaking to them, as a reminder that some change in volume or tone of voice was needed, a gesture that people around them would soon get used to seeing and react immediately to by adjusting their manner of speech appropriately.

    It went on from there, with many bits of very practical advice we might not always think of on our own. Included were practice sessions to help overcome the natural tendency not to speak up or draw attention from others. This short course, just a couple of hours in a friendly group setting, did wonders for my ability to deal with the need to make others aware of my hearing loss and how to respond to it. Be proactive on your own behalf was the message. It works.

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    • This is a fantastic idea. I wish audiologists would offer a course like this. One place you can get help like this is with a support organization like HLAA or ALDA. Seattle has a very strong HLAA chapter and I think an ALDA chapter as well. You might look into going to some of their meetings.

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      • I suggested it to the hearing aid provider I became acquainted with when assisting a 90 year old friend to get new hearing aids, but he wasn’t interested. But because I had taken that course on Bainbridge, I was able to help her overcome her natural reluctance to speak up, although the family wasn’t very receptive I must say, no doubt a common problem. People seem to think hearing aids instantly cure all problems.

        Hmmm… I might go to one of those association meetings just to toss out the suggestion that they consider promoting the idea of such a course. Thanks.

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  2. Hi Katherine, Love the post — and the final sentence gave me a very good laugh. Perhaps I missed this explanation in a prior post, but why does hearing loss afflict men at twice the rate of women? H.

    Helena Rosenberg, MFT 25500 Hawthorne Blvd. Ste. 1220 Torrance, CA 90505 & 9171 Wilshire Blvd. Ste. 670 Beverly Hills, CA 90210 (310) 226-6161

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    • Lots of reasons probably. Men traditionally were more likely to work in noisy factory jobs, to do noisy yard work, to go to noisy sports events like football stadiums, to be in active duty military. Until pretty recently most didn’t wear any hearing protection in any of these situations.
      There’s probably also a genetic component though I’m not sure if that’s been proved.

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  3. Thank you Katherine. Anybody can acquire a HA, but learning to live with them is a whole other proposition. My guess is that when most of us are fitted with HAs, we write a check and are sent on our way. Some auditory training including speech reading would have helped me enormously. Audiologists don’t make any money performing or sponsoring such activities. These are the very people who should (in my opinion) be involved in such activities. I have gotten more help in living with hearing loss from blogs like yours than from any professional with whom I have formerly had a relationship.

    I’m wondering if there is a flaw in the audiology business model. If audiologists operated more like primary care physicians they would be referring clients to agencies and organizations whose function is to provide the very things we are talking about. They are good at tweaking the device but pretty dismal in helping clients live in the real world with those devices.

    I completely agree about the gender differences in living with hearing loss and hearing aids. Long ago I decided that women dealt with life more realistically than men. Generally speaking, of course. 🙂

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    • There is a flaw in the audiology business model, just as you describe. There is profit in selling hearing aids but not in offering rehabilitative services, which are time consuming and much less remunerative than selling a hearing aid. I do wonder why audiologists are so reluctant to refer clients to organizations like the Hearing Loss Association of America that can help their clients learn to use their hearing aids more effectively. Most audiologists don’t even know what HLAA is. It seems like a real disservice to their clients.
      At the risk of self-promotion, I also don’t know why audiologists don’t suggest my books to their clients. They are full of very helpful practical information. The feedback from readers that I get is gratitude for finally helping them figure out what’s what with their hearing loss and what they can do about it. They often ask why they didn’t hear this from their audiologist.

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      • Katherine – your writings have surely helped me. I asked my “last” audiologist why he didn’t recommend good books and provide information on assistive technologies (audio loops for instance) and he claimed not to know of any good books and on the latter he said there was no money there for him. I have moved on. Thanks again.

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      • A lot of people think that if the audiology business model shifted to providing these kinds of services to people who need them — and sold hearing aids at a lower price to people who don’t need the extra services, including most of those with mild to moderate hearing loss — everyone would benefit. More hearing aids sold, more information and education and assistive devices for those who need them — how can this not be a better model for everyone, including audiologists?

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