More Than Just Memory Loss

Photo of lonely senior woman sitting at a table and thinking.

Movies and television shows have long portrayed people with dementia in a very stereotypical way. The scene is usually a woman wandering around (probably in a nightgown) outside of home; she appears lost and distracted. The woman is unable to recognize her own children when they find her and want to bring her to safety; she may even resist. She has Alzheimer’s.

While there is some truth to this vignette—most individuals with dementia are women and the greatest number of dementia cases are Alzheimer’s—ironically, a big aspect of this condition is forgotten. Dementia often includes sensory loss as well. Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching can all be impacted.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not a specific disease. Instead, it’s a term to refer to all the disorders caused by an abnormal change in the brain. These changes negatively impact thinking skills, damaging a person’s day-to-day life and ability to live independently. The changes also alter the person’s behavior, feelings, and relationships. As mentioned, Alzheimer’s is the most known form of dementia as up to 80% of people with dementia are diagnosed with it. Critically, the serious mental decline of dementia is not a normal part of aging.

How does dementia impact the senses?

Not everyone with dementia will experience the same sensory losses, but everyone with dementia will experience some form of sensory loss. Here are ways that the senses may be impacted and what they mean for the person with dementia.

  • Vision may become restricted with the loss of depth perception or peripheral visions. Without depth perception, individuals are more likely to bump into things and get confused by patterns on the floor. Without peripheral vision, they are more likely to be startled and might be more agitated in certain surroundings. Sometimes, the brain may see things but not be able to interpret them; one woman with dementia calls that “brain blindness.”
  • Almost half of seniors age 75 and older have disabling hearing loss. For those with dementia, the area of the brain which processes auditory information and encodes memory may also be impacted. For them, the brain can no longer filter out background noise, so all sounds are processed equally. This hypersensitivity means a normal room may be too loud to focus or respond appropriately.
  • The world of touch can diminish as well. Those with dementia may not be able to process sensation as quickly as those without. So, being in pain, recognizing something is too hot or too cold, or even feeling hungry is delayed or goes unnoticed. Physical safety is a real issue. Individuals with dementia may cause harm to themselves and not know it. One person with dementia explained, “I poured boiling water over my hands instead of into a cup and didn’t feel it”

 Dementia is more than memory loss. It often includes losing parts of the five senses we rely on. By understanding this greater loss, we can better respond, help, and care for those with the condition.  

Source: IlluminAge with information from Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer Scotland, MedBridge, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

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