Vision Loss and Dementia: The Science

Recent reporting in major scientific journals, including reports from the National Institutes of Health, has made significant strides in understanding the links of vision loss and cognitive decline.

Although much work is still to be done, scientists and medical clinicians accept data that indicates people with distance vision problems are 2-3 times more likely to develop cognitive impairment (compared to those with normal vision).

The prevalence of blindness and vision impairment increases rapidly with age among all racial and ethnic groups. Cases of early age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy are expected to double and quadruple, respectively, in the next 20-30 years.

National studies indicate that vision loss is associated with a higher prevalence of chronic health conditions, death, falls and injuries, depression, social isolation, and cognitive decline.

When combined with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, vision loss is associated with overall poorer health among people ages 65 or older. Vision loss compromises an individual’s quality of life because it reduces their capacity to read, drive a car, watch television, or keep personal accounts. Often, it isolates older people and keeps them from friends and family.

Elderly people with untreated poor vision are significantly more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia than their normal seeing counterparts, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

According to Dr. Mary Rogers of the University of Michigan, “Visual problems can have serious consequences and are very common among the elderly, but many of them are not seeking treatment.” Poor vision, like poor hearing, can reduce the amount of social and physical activities in adults – thus increasing the risk of developing dementia. 

Early Signs of Vision Loss And Dementia – What To Look For

It is often hard to separate the signs of vision loss from those of dementia – as the two can mask each other. Having difficulty with any of the following may suggest a person is having problems with their vision:

  • Reading
  • Recognizing people
  • Coping with low light, bright light, or both
  • Finding things
  • Avoiding obstacles
  • Locating food on their plate
  • Seeing well even with glasses on

Note – many of these issues are common in both vision loss and in individuals living with dementia. Despite the many cognitive difficulties associated with dementia, vision testing can be adapted for individuals with such cognitive decline.

Managing Dementia and Vision Loss

People living with both dementia and vision loss are more susceptible to experiencing disorientation, greater problems with mobility, and an increased risk of falls. They are also likely to have more difficulties with communication, understanding and learning new tasks, loss of activities, and increased social isolation.

Living with these conditions in tandem can also make it harder to use some of the coping strategies and techniques that can help people with communication or memory problems such as visual prompts or notes.

Given the difficulty of managing the two disorders, there are a number of strategies that can help the person, and his or her family, manage both vision loss and dementia, including:

  • Proper eye care (regular eye exams, maintaining up-to-date vision prescriptions, and assuring glasses are clean)
  • Adjusting living surroundings, including improved lighting (preferable automatic lighting), removing clutter, removing area rugs (they can be easy to trip and fall over!)
  • Improving communication – for example, getting the person’s attention before speaking to them, introducing yourself, letting them know what is happening (e.g. “I’m leaving the room now.”)
  • Enroll in vision rehabilitation courses.

Hearing Loss and Dementia: The Science

Hearing loss impacts over 48 million people in the US and is listed by the Department of Health and Human Services as the 3rd most common chronic disorder affecting today’s seniors.

Unfortunately, for most of us, age-related hearing loss is inevitable, impacting nearly 50% of seniors between the ages of 60-70, almost two-thirds of people between the age of 70-80, and nearly 80% of individuals over the age of 80.

Age-related hearing loss is characterized by the progressive loss of receptor (hair) cells in the ear that consequently reduces the quantity and quality of neural connections from the ear to the brain.

This slow-onset degenerative disease can have a significant impact on several key brain areas, including the memory, hearing, speech, and language portions of cognition. Several key research studies have pointed to the potential links of hearing loss and dementia, including the ground-breaking work from Dr. Lin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins Medical Center that indicates hearing loss can increase the risk of dementia by 200-500%.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one has a hearing loss, then please contact us today to schedule an appointment. We are proud to serve patients across 11 Northern Utah locations and would be happy to help.

Even if you are not experiencing the symptoms of hearing loss, an annual hearing assessment is recommended to monitor any changes to your hearing so that you can be sure to keep a healthy mind and body.

We hope to hear from you soon.

Do you know somebody that needs to see this? Why not share it?

Molly LeRoy

Molly LeRoy

Dr. Molly LeRoy has been working in the hearing healthcare field since 1998 where she started as a secretary at the House of Hearing while attending the University of Utah. She soon became a Board-Certified Hearing Instrument Specialist and also obtained her Doctorate in Audiology. As President and Owner of the ENT House of Hearing since 2003, Dr. LeRoy has dedicated over 20 years of her life to delivering superior patient care to every person that walks through the door.