Study Of Women And Hearing Reveals Need For Routine Hearing Tests

March 17, 1999

Although hearing loss is among the most common chronic conditions in women, the vast majority of women fail to include hearing testing in their routine health care, according to two Northwestern researchers who recently completed the first major study exclusively focused on hearing in women.

"Women experiencing hearing loss who fail to gain the appropriate support from family, friends and professionals not only are likely to be at a disadvantage for successfully coping with their hearing problem but also at greater risk for depression and other emotional problems," said Dean Garstecki, professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University and co-author of "Women and Hearing."

Hearing screening is not a part of most HMO plans, according to Garstecki and "Women and Hearing" co-author Susan Erler. Failure to screen, they say, can adversely affect the health and well-being of many older individuals since hearing loss, which is common in aging populations, often is accompanied by feelings of isolation, stress, and loss of confidence.

"Our study indicates that public policy must be amended to include hearing care as an integral part of all health maintenance plans," Garstecki said. "Our results underscore the likelihood that a significant proportion of older women have undiagnosed and untreated hearing loss," Erler added. "They clearly suggest that both aging populations and their health care providers need to develop greater awareness of hearing loss and the need for routine testing."

Garstecki and research audiologist Erler found that women reported more symptoms of depression than did men in a previous study they conducted of older adults with impaired hearing. In their latest study, sponsored by the Retirement Research Foundation, the researchers studied 200 women in three age groups (35-45, 55-65 and 75-80 years).

In "Women and Hearing" -- the first systematic investigation of women extending beyond hearing and speech understanding to include psycho-social factors that may relate to hearing behavior -- Garstecki and Erler found that gradual declines in hearing ability begin in mid-life. Even women with "good hearing" for their age experience, as they get older, increasing difficulties comprehending conversation in the presence of background noise.

"By age 55, about 13 percent of all women have impaired hearing," says Garstecki. Yet fewer than 20 percent of the women studied in the 55-65 age group said they had been tested for hearing in the last five years. Only about 40 percent of women in the 75-80 age group -- women who have a one in three chance of hearing loss -- reported having a hearing test within the last five years.

The Northwestern study suggests that because declines in hearing occur gradually, women tend to acclimate to their diminished hearing ability. All the study participants, including the oldest ones, reported to the researchers prior to the study that they had normal hearing.

In addition, the study suggests that as women age, they are less likely to feel personally in control of their health and more inclined to rely on the treatment recommendations and opinions of health care providers. Depression, which is more common in women than in men, may result from the feelings of stress, isolation and lack of confidence that often accompany hearing loss.

On the positive side, the study found that many older women defy the stereotypes of decline associated with aging, maintaining high levels of activity that demand effective communication. Because declines in speech understanding, central auditory processing and self-perceived communication performance are common, the Northwestern researchers insist that rehabilitative intervention designed to help develop effective communication strategies would benefit the growing population of older women.

To combat the adverse emotional feelings experienced by many individuals with hearing loss and to enable them to remain engaged in activities that require effective communication, Garstecki has developed a rehabilitation program for both women and men who find themselves having difficulty hearing amidst the chaos of everyday living.

"What we do is take real world communication situations and break them into manageable bits so that individuals with impaired hearing develop management strategies to overcome their hearing difficulties," Garstecki explained.

He suggests simple strategies such as maintaining face-to-face communication; learning to read body language and facial expression; avoiding darkly lit places or places that have excessive background noise; and letting others know when you are having trouble understanding them.

The Northwestern audiologists also stress the need for testing in order to determine what treatment is best suited for an individual experiencing hearing loss.
-end-
For a free brochure on the "Women and Hearing" study, contact Susan Erler, Women and Hearing Study, Northwestern University, 2299 N. Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208. For information about a hearing test, contact the Northwestern University Hearing Clinic at 847-491-3165.



Northwestern University

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