From our head to our toes to everything in between, our bodies change as we age. These changes can affect our vision, our physical fitness, and our hearing. In response, companies have developed glasses, canes, and hearing aids that can help us maintain our independence and dignity in a functional, and sometimes even stylish, way.
Memory Changes with Age
Other changes that come with old age are not as easily seen (even with a good pair of glasses). Among these are memory-related changes. Changes in memory can be concealed for a long time. Friends and family might even unintentionally enable this by acting as word-finders and interpreters, thinking not that they are dealing with a loved one with memory loss, but rather that they are simply helping a loved one remember a word or name. While never malicious, this enablement can cause people to overlook how often their loved one forgets that word or forgets how to get to the store. All the while, a loved one may in fact be suffering from dementia.
Dementia is itself not a disease, but rather is an umbrella term used to describe various symptoms that result in cognitive changes. These can be changes in memory, judgment, communication, mood, and motor skills (such as using a pen).
The incidence of dementia becomes greater as we age. Particularly in an increasingly longer-living society, dementia is becoming even more prevalent.
There are different types of dementia–related illnesses, though Alzheimer’s disease is the most common. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), by 2050, it is expected that 14 million individuals will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia and often occurs after a stroke.
The common conception of a dementia diagnosis is one of changes in memory or amnesia. However, it is important to understand how far dementia’s reach can extend. In addition to amnesia, dementia can cause:
- Aphasia: increased difficulty with verbal and written forms of communication
- Apraxia: struggle to complete complex motor tasks or daily living tasks such as brushing teeth and dressing
- Agnosia: trouble correctly interpreting signals from the five senses
How Dementia Affects Hearing Loss
Hearing loss falls into the category of agnosia and, often, healthcare professionals may misdiagnose this as dementia. Because most, if not all, testing for dementia is verbal, untreated hearing loss can adversely affect testing results. Many people don’t consider just how important hearing is to quality of life.
According to an article by Renee A. Monahan, Au.D., C.C.C.-A., and Louis R. Sieminski, Ph.D., C.C.C.-A. in the May/June 2014 issue of “Today’s Geriatric Medicine,” more than 80 percent of individuals over the age of 85 will experience significant hearing loss. Additionally, 24 percent of people in the U.S. aged 80 and older are living with dementia. That number is expected to grow in line with our nation’s aging population. Hearing loss and dementia largely impact the same population and can bring about similar concerns. Like hearing loss, dementia can cause social isolation in that if one cannot hear the conversation and cannot follow the conversation, others may not speak with them.
Challenges can also arise with care partners. For example, in an adult day program or long-term care setting, an individual living with dementia and hearing loss may experience difficulty following directions and participating in activities and events. This may lead staff members to see an individual as problematic, argumentative, or disagreeable. As professionals, we may fail to recognize that individuals may simply not hear what they are being asked to do. Hearing loss can be masked by additional symptoms of dementia, which can also present a challenge.
In order to optimize quality of life, it is important not only to understand whether an individual is impacted by cognitive impairment and/or hearing loss, but also to offer supportive solutions—such as hearing devices—to fit all scenarios. If someone is living with dementia, the ability to hear a familiar voice or song is significant in avoiding isolation and providing pleasure, regardless of whether they can follow the conversation or sing along. These interactions are beneficial for individuals living with dementia, hearing loss, or both.