The Florida Bar

Age Related Hearing Loss: It’s Our Issue Now

October 13, 2021

By Susan Healy

“What? You were raised by a bear?” My Into to Law class erupted into laughter while the student who had just spoken looked confused. That’s what I heard, but of course that wasn’t what he had said, not even close. Well, at least hearing loss hadn’t caught up with me when I was still practicing law and might have accused a client – or worse yet, a judge – of having been raised by a wild animal.

By some estimates, 20.3% of Americans 12 years old and over have some degree of hearing loss. The incidence increases with age. One recent study found that the percentages are 44.9% for those aged 60-69, 68.1% for ages 70-79 and 89.1% for Americans 80 years old and over. In all, 91% of adults with hearing loss are aged 50 and older. It is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults.

Although the incidence of hearing loss increases as we age, not all is a result of presbycusis, the medical term for age-related hearing loss. Noise exposure, medications, accidents and illness can also cause or contribute to hearing loss, but those other causes can be treated if they are detected early.

The problem is that presbycusis sneaks up on us. Unlike other types of hearing loss, age-related loss is gradual and affects both ears at the same time (both our ears are the same age, right?). That means that often the loss is not noticed until it affects our ability to function professionally and socially. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports that nearly 25% of adults aged 65 to 74, and 50% percent of those who are 75 and older have “disabling” hearing loss, which is defined as the level at which the patient could benefit from hearing aids.

If you suspect that you might be affected by presbycusis, the NIDCD suggests asking yourself the following questions. If you answer “yes” to three or more of these questions, you could have a hearing problem.

  • Do you sometimes feel embarrassed when you meet new people because you struggle to hear?
  • Do you feel frustrated when talking to members of your family because you have difficulty hearing them?
  • Do you have difficulty hearing or understanding co-workers, clients, or customers?
  • Do you feel restricted or limited by a hearing problem?
  • Do you have difficulty hearing when visiting friends, relatives, or neighbors?
  • Do you have trouble hearing in the movies or in the theater?
  • Does a hearing problem cause you to argue with family members?
  • Do you have trouble hearing the TV or radio at levels that are loud enough for others?
  • Do you feel that any difficulty with your hearing limits your personal or social life?
  • Do you have trouble hearing family or friends when you are together in a restaurant?

Like many age-related health issues, presbycusis cannot be “cured,” but it can be managed. Once it becomes disabling, hearing aids may be an option. However, help is available for those who suffer from mild or moderate hearing loss that is beginning to affect their ability to hear higher-pitched voices, hear speakers from a distance or understand speech in a noisy environment. All three of these factors can converge in large, in person meetings, such as CLE presentations. The Florida Association of the Deaf estimates approximately three million Floridians have hearing loss sufficient to impact their ability to participate in meetings without accommodation.

Real-time captioning services, Internet captioning applications, and video remote interpreting services may be available upon request. In certain contexts, such accommodations for hearing impairment may be required by industry standards or by state or federal law. Floridahealth.gov offers a guide for planning accessible meetings for hearing-impaired attendees. By requesting these reasonable accommodations before an event, senior lawyers can help ensure their ability to fully participate.

Virtual meetings pose different challenges, but they also come with solutions. Check out this Florida Bar Tech-Tip for using the accessibility features in Zoom.

Pandemic-era masking and social distancing can make communicating even more difficult for people with hearing loss. Face masks and shields lower the volume of speech and can garble words, but researchers have found that the blue paper surgical masks have the least impact on sound volume and quality. Masks with clear plastic inserts over the mouth can help with lip reading and facial movement clues that visually assist speech recognition. Both types of face masks provide public health protection while avoiding further barriers to communication and should be used if requested.

The Senior Lawyers Committee Accessibility Task Force is currently working on identifying ways to make Florida Bar meetings and services more accessible for senior lawyers with hearing loss and other common age-related conditions. Learn more about accessibility and the requirements of the ADA in our October free CLE presentation, Americans with Disabilities Act: What Senior Lawyers, Other Lawyers, and Law Firms Should Know about the Protections and Obligations of this Law.

Susan Healy is the Chair of the Senior Lawyers Committee Newsletter Subcommittee and teaches in the Legal Studies Department at Florida Gulf Coast University.