Sensory impairment and dementia risk: What’s the connection?

elderly couple

Vision loss and hearing impairment are a natural part of aging for many people. But those sensory conditions may also mean they are more susceptible to cognitive decline, which can leave them struggling to remember, think and make decisions. Recent studies show that as people develop issues with vision and hearing, they could be up to twice as likely to develop dementia.

But needing glasses or a hearing aid does not necessarily mean one will develop dementia, says David Reuben, MD, chief of the UCLA Division of Geriatrics. “Researchers have studied the association between cognitive decline and sensory issues for years. There are a lot of associations with both vision and hearing loss, but the evidence is still inconclusive,” Dr. Reuben says. “It’s still unclear whether or not hearing or vision loss contributes to developing dementia or if some of these impairments are simply a sign of cognitive decline.”

About 11% of A merica ns age 65 or older live with dementia — def ined as severe cognitive decline that interferes with the ability to perform daily activities. But cognitive decline is a process that happens over time. Understanding that process may help someone to recognize the signs of cognitive issues early. The stages of cognitive decline include:

  • Normal aging: One occasionally has trouble remembering names, words and parts of a grocery list, but usually recall them later.
  • Mild Cognitive Impairment: A person’s memory issues become more common and may be apparent to others or during a doctor’s evaluation, but they do not interfere with daily functions or activity.
  • Dementia: Memory deficits interfere with one’s daily functions, such as paying bills, taking medicine correctly, driving or selfcare tasks such as bathing and dressing.

“Struggling to remember little things every once in a while is associated with normal aging. But if it becomes common or severe, the problem should be investigated further by your primary care provider,” Dr. Reuben says. “About 10-to15% of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment will transition to dementia each year. That means about half of all people diagnosed will develop dementia within five years of diagnosis.”

Vision and hearing loss may also contribute to cognitive decline by resulting in social isolation, depression and decreased physical activity. “If you have hearing or vision loss, you’re missing out on what’s going on around you,” Dr. Reuben says. “If you don’t hear a conversation well or see what’s happening, it’s hard to fully process the information, which, in turn, may impair your function and your quality of life.”

If someone is experiencing such issues, Dr. Reuben again recommends speaking with one’s physician and receiving a full assessment. “Sometimes we have people come in with memory issues, but we’ll realize there’s hearing loss,” Dr. Reuben says. “In some instances, when they get a hearing aid, their memory concerns are less.”

In addition to keeping one’s eyes and ears working well, there are other proven ways to lower someone’s risk for dementia. Dr. Reuben recommends lifestyle changes that include maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels; finding an enjoyable activity that challenges one’s brain in ways other than typical daily activities; eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and exercising daily.

“None of these changes are easy,” Dr. Reuben says. “They all require behavioral modification and a commitment. While there is no certainty or guarantee that you won’t develop dementia, making lifestyle changes is the best way to lower your risk.”