ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Anabeth Calkins expected to hear mumbling from time to time _ a medical condition caused her to lose hearing in her left ear.

But only when it seemed that nearly everyone was muttering _ including those outside work _ did Calkins decide to seek help.

Calkins, 58, who manages the city's popular Forest Park, with its ball fields, golf courses, ice rinks and an outdoor theater, was among the first to enroll in the Word of Mouth lip-reading program by Central Institute for the Deaf. The program is aimed at older executives who are leading more active lives while coping with age-related hearing loss.

``As you age, you lose the ability to translate sound _ a person can still hear, but they can't understand what others are saying,'' said Elizabeth Mauze, an audiologist who helps run the lip-reading program.

For Calkins, whose hearing in her right ear was unaffected, the program was a form of ``preventive maintenance.''

``People's careers often depend on interpreting and communicating spoken language,'' she said.

The program, which currently is aimed at the St. Louis community, runs one hour a week for four weeks. Classes are limited to four people so that instructors can provide more one-on-one attention.

For half of the class time, participants watch interactive videos on a computer in an effort to hone their lip-reading skills. They try to decipher sentences mouthed by an expressionless woman. Some mouth the words along with the woman on the computer screen.

When students are stumped, they can ask the computer to give them a single word clue or to have the sentence rephrased. Both are important lip-reading tricks, Mauze said.

Age-related hearing loss, known as presbycusis, occurs as a part of the inner ear slowly loses its ability to transmit certain sounds, such as the letters S, T or F.

``People lose the high-pitched sounds first,'' said Nancy Tye Murray, the institute's director of research. ``Typically, they will start turning up the TV, and they'll complain that people are mumbling.''

A hearing aid can help amplify sounds, but it doesn't necessarily help people with presbycusis, she said. It becomes especially troublesome in situations where there is a lot of background noise, such as at parties or at the movies. Some people begin isolating themselves and become depressed, feeling they can't compete with younger colleagues.

``We're growing up in a much noisier society,'' Murray said. ``The ambient noise that we're exposed to is causing more significant hearing loss, and hearing loss is showing up at an earlier age.''

Hearing impairment is the country's No. 1 disability, affecting 28 million Americans, said William W. Clark, an authority on noise-induced hearing loss and the institute's director of professional services. By the age of 65, one in four adults suffers from permanent hearing impairment.

The institute hopes the Word of Mouth program will help people lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

``Whether or not they wear hearing aids, people are surprised by how some focused communication training can make them feel younger and sharper,'' Mauze said.

Participants in the program, which started in 1998, are encouraged to practice lip reading with friends, family and coworkers. Some even spend time watching TV without the volume.

``They're not going to become great lip readers in four weeks,'' Mauze said. ``If anything, they see that it is very, very difficult and that they are going to have to learn other ways to compensate for not hearing.''

That is why the other half of class time is devoted to learning strategies to improve hearing.

For example, if an executive is planning to attend a seminar, Mauze advises that the executive call ahead and request a front row seat.

``No one knows why it's reserved. They think it's because you are important,'' she said.

Most importantly, Mauze wants her students to be assertive when talking with others. They are advised to let people know they have trouble hearing. They also are encouraged to ask others to clarify what is being said.

``Only between 30 and 40 percent of the sounds are visible, so one of the things that we emphasize is that people must know the context of what's going on,'' Mauze said.

Jim Lacey, 77, said his wife encouraged him to sign up for the class.

``My friends probably suspected 20 years ago that I was losing my hearing, but I didn't,'' said Lacey, who is retired but socially active. ``I got my hearing aid about 10 years ago, but I still have trouble.

``I guess I'm doing the Word of Mouth because I want to be more involved in the community.''

Barbara Beck, an instructor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department at Saint Louis University, said programs aimed at helping older Americans maintain their independence are important.

``People have to be proactive when it comes to hearing loss,'' she said. ``Lip reading is a lot like playing a musical instrument. Some people will be better at it than others. But with practice, we can all do it.''

The institute eventually hopes to accommodate people from across the country in the program, possibly offering an intensive weekend session.

``Lip reading is a lot harder than I thought it would be,'' Lacey said. ``It's difficult to evaluate how well I'm doing with it, but the strategies to help improve communication have really been helpful.''

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On the Net:

http://www.cid.wustl.edu

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Tips for improving lip-reading skills:

_ Be sure you can see clearly. You can listen with your eyes, but you must have clear vision. Be sure you have glasses if you need them, and that they are properly adjusted.

_Relax when you lip-read. It will allow you to watch lips and speakers carefully without tiring or letting your attention wander.

_Be alert. This takes practice, but to listen with your eyes, you have to keep your attention on the speakers and their lips at all times.

_Be confident. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. You will learn with practice and mistakes will begin to disappear.

_Train the muscles of your mouth to remember how the shape of the sound looks. Silently make the shape of each sound when you see someone else make it. At the start of your study, this may be a useful trick, but later you will concentrate on lip reading sentences not isolated sounds.

_Practice, practice, practice. Use every opportunity to lip-read _ with your friends, in crowds and in public.

_Be patient. Sticking to it will really pay off, but it does take time. Once the basics are mastered you need to practice in everyday life, every day.

_Develop a sense of rhythm. Speech has rhythm, and it affects how sounds are formed. Be aware of this.

_Lip-read for thought or content. You are interested in sentences not sounds. Your aim is to communicate with people and to understand what they are saying.

_Have fun with lip reading. Let your sense of humor cut loose. Enjoy it as a game.

Source: Central Institute for the Deaf.