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For Millions With Untreated Hearing Loss, Family Gatherings Can Be Difficult

For many of the millions of hearing-impaired Americans, especially the 27 million living with untreated hearing loss, family gatherings may not be all that happy, says audiologist Dr. Cindy Beyer.

"Studies have linked hearing loss to stress, frustration, and social isolation, which can easily be intensified at...gatherings with families and friends, when many of those with hearing impairment may find conversations both difficult and isolating," says Dr. Beyer, senior vice president of HearUSA Inc., one of America's largest hearing-care and hearing-aids companies.

"Hearing loss is often labeled 'the invisible handicap' because there are no outward signs of a handicap or limitations," Dr. Beyer says. "As a result, we are unlikely to be aware that accommodations may be necessary to avoid a breakdown in communication."

Dr. Beyer offers suggestions for making gatherings more comfortable and enjoyable for those with hearing impairment, as well as for the people around them.

* Speak clearly and distinctly, but not too fast - and never shout.
* If asked to repeat something, do so without raising the voice and appearing annoyed.
* If a comment or question is still not being understood after repetition, reword it. Some words are easier to understand than others.
* In a group situation, be sure the hearing-impaired person is included in the conversation. If not, bring him or her back in.
* When speaking, look directly at the person and try not to be more than five feet away.
* Facial expressions, gestures and overall body language are important aids in communicating, so try to be sure you have the listener's attention and that the room is well-lit.
* Conversation is greatly enhanced when there is no distracting background noise from a radio or television.
* Dining out? Choose a quiet restaurant. Noisy conversations and the clatter of dishes and tableware in a crowded dining area are barriers to effective communication.
* Ask if anything can be done to make communication easier. For example, conversation will be much easier to understand in a room with carpeting and well-upholstered furniture than in a room with tiled floors, high ceilings or wooden furniture.

While almost all hearing loss can be successfully treated with hearing aids, only 25% of the 36 million Americans with hearing loss have hearing aids, according to the Better Hearing Institute. According to the institute, most hearing-aids users report significant improvement in their interpersonal relationships and social lives.

"Today's digital hearing aids are smaller, smarter and more comfortable than ever before," Dr. Beyer says. "I can think of no kinder act than encouraging a loved one or a friend with untreated hearing loss to consider the positive impact hearing aids could have on their lives, and help them arrange for an evaluation by a licensed hearing-care practitioner."

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