What is dual sensory impairment?

By | January 21, 2020

Age has its benefits—such as retirement and senior citizen discounts—but it also comes with its share of challenges. As we age, it’s not uncommon to see changes in our health—especially in our vision and hearing. In fact, various studies indicate that anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of those over the age of 70 have a condition known as dual sensory loss.

Although having problems hearing and seeing can seem overwhelming, a timely and effective diagnosis along with the proper rehabilitation strategies can greatly minimize its impact. 

Facts about dual sensory impairment

What is dual sensory impairment?

When a person begins to experience declines in both their vision and hearing, it’s defined as dual sensory loss, or dual sensory impairment. The condition can be congenital (present at birth) or it can occur naturally as part of the aging process. For people with severe vision and hearing loss, it’s known as deaf-blindness.

Other causes include genetic diseases, such as Usher’s syndrome. It can also occur after a traumatic brain injury or blast exposure. 

Why is it important to seek treatment?

Research has linked dual sensory impairment to avoidance of social interactions and a diminished quality of life, according to a systematic review of studies looking at dual sensory loss and depression in older adults. 

“Dual sensory loss is poorly understood, under-recognized and under-diagnosed,” the authors wrote. “This is particularly the case in its mild form since it may be undetected by the individual, or onset may initially be in one domain at a time (vision or hearing deterioration).” 

Although it may seem natural to experience a certain amount of loss in hearing and vision as you age, both can significantly impact a person’s health, safety and quality of life. Hearing loss in and of itself, for example, is strongly linked to cognitive impairment in older adults. 

The good news: Studies show that people who receive treatment for dual sensory impairment have a higher quality of life and a lower risk of death than people who don’t receive treatment. 

Dual sensory loss can feel overwhelming

Dr. Ying-Zi Xiong
Dr. Ying-Zi Xiong

Combined with other health issues associated with aging, dual sensory loss can seem overwhelming, said Dr. Ying-Zi Xiong, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Envision Research Institute (ERI) and a research associate at the University of Minnesota.

Xiong, whose two-year research project at ERI explores new ways to help people diagnosed with dual sensory loss, said the condition is especially challenging for older adults because it compromises the body’s natural sensory compensation abilities.

“People with hearing loss can rely on their vision and people with vision loss can rely on their hearing,” Xiong said. “For example, audiobooks can help vision-impaired people with reading and closed-captioning can help hearing-impaired people while watching videos. These aids are less helpful for people with dual sensory loss.”

Treating dual sensory loss

Because the majority of people with dual sensory loss still have functional vision and hearing, they will likely benefit from rehabilitation once they’ve received a proper diagnosis from a qualified medical professional.

“Rehabilitation therapists can help with adaptation and accommodation after sensory loss,” Xiong said. “They will prescribe assistive devices and teach coping strategies, which will make everyday tasks and communications much easier.”

But first a person needs a thorough medical assessment to see what’s causing the hearing loss and vision loss. For example, the eye disease glaucoma—which is more common in older people—can lead to vision loss and should be treated by a doctor.  

“When it comes to treatment, ophthalmologists and otolaryngologists are the experts,” Xiong said. “Although treatment might not necessarily cure the vision and hearing conditions, they can often slow down deterioration, stabilize the condition and relieve discomforts. Maintaining the use of residual vision and hearing is a great exercise for the brain and with time we become more and more efficient in using the visual and auditory information.”

Is dual sensory impairment preventable?

Xiong said while it’s difficult to control family histories that include inherited vision or hearing disorders such as macular degeneration and Usher’s syndrome, recent research indicates a healthy lifestyle can improve your odds.

Not smoking, eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing eye conditions. The best way to protect against noise-induced hearing loss is to limit your exposure to loud sounds. Emerging evidence is also showing that a healthy diet may also reduce the risk of hearing loss. 

How to seek help

If you or a loved one are noticing changes in your vision and hearing, schedule an appointment with a medical professional immediately. If you are diagnosed with dual sensory impairment, work closely with your medical team to identify appropriate assistive devices, coping strategies and other rehabilitation activities to address your individual needs. Most importantly, engage the help of your loved ones in the education and rehabilitation process.

“Family support is crucial for older people who are dealing with dual sensory loss,” Xiong said. “We need to be patient when elders have communication problems and encourage and create opportunities for them to engage in social interactions.”

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