Dementia and Sensory loss: Part 1 – “Can You Hear Me Now?”

~ By Kandice Young ~

To understand the world around us, it is critical that we have the ability to hear, and make sense of, sounds. The process of how we hear with our ears, and then turn that sound into information our brains can understand, is a truly complex and fascinating function of the human body. When someone with dementia is no longer able to make sense of the sounds that the ears are sending the brain they can have trouble communicating and they often become frightened, anxious, withdrawn, and even depressed. Dementia affects all of the 5 senses, but from my experience, when a person’s ability to hear and process sound is affected, it is often the most significant factor decreasing their quality of life.

In many cases, people with dementia have normal hearing, but lose their ability to accurately interpret what they hear. This is when their safety becomes a concern, whether they are at home or in a memory care community. For example, when a person has a brain damaged by dementia, their brain is unable to identify important sounds that should warn them of danger, like police sirens or fire alarms. They are also unable to filter out all the unimportant sounds that happen in everyday life, like nearby conversations, phones ringing, or a tv that was left on in another room. This can cause agitation, which increases wandering, loss of balance, falls and injuries.

Hearing loss is all too common, in fact more people lose their sense of hearing than any other sense, and it affects all ages, from newborns to elderly people. Hearing loss is also a normal part of aging so it is common for people to have hearing difficulties prior to developing dementia. Studies are now suggesting that people with hearing loss are 5 times more likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing. The theory is that people with hearing loss tend to isolate themselves and have less social interaction due to difficulty communicating. This causes brain tissue loss to happen at an accelerated rate in the areas of the brain that control speech and language. When it comes to the topic of hearing, the old adage “use it or lose it” definitely applies.

Some helpful tips to reduce overstimulation from sound are:

  • Avoid back ground noise, such as having the tv on in another room, the radio on at the same time, or a window open that allows in noise from the outside, like sirens or car horns.
  • Avoid large crowds of people (large family gathering, restaurants)
  • If the person wears a hearing aid, check the batteries and functioning frequently.
  • When providing care with 2 or more people, only one person should communicate.
  • When you are communicating, ensure that you are at their level, make eye contact, and use physical cues to help them understand what you are trying to say.
Kandice Young

Kandice Young

Kandice Young, LPN, Clinical Services Director
Greenridge Place, An Anthem Memory Care Community

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