Sensory loss could be used to identify those at risk of cognitive decline and dementia, according to new research.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports found that hearing impairment and vision impairment are associated with cognitive decline.

Half of older adults with both hearing and vision impairment have cognitive impairment

The researchers used data from 10 consecutive waves of the American Community Survey (2008-2017), which included a total of 5.4 million adults aged 65 and older.

After accounting for sex, age and other socio-demographic characteristics, older adults with hearing impairment had more than double the odds of cognitive impairment, while those with vision impairment had more than triple the odds of cognitive impairment.

For adults who had both hearing and visions impairment, the odds of cognitive impairment were eight-fold, with around half of this group suffering with cognitive decline.

The findings may help to inform intervention measures

The authors of the study say several theories could explain the association between sensory impairment and cognitive impairment. These include:

  • Cognitive deterioration due to decreased auditory and visual input
  • Social disengagement and loneliness due to problems communicating
  • Age-related degeneration of the central nervous system.

They say further research is now needed to determine whether the association between the two factors is causal.

In the meantime, co-author Aliya Nowczynski, said the findings may help to inform intervention measures. She said: “Dual sensory impairment prevents an individual from compensating for the loss of one sense through the use of another.

“Our findings emphasize the need to reach out to older adults with dual sensory impairment, to assess whether there are opportunities for early intervention.”

Treating sensory impairment could help to improve the cognitive health of older adults

Another author of the study, Andie MacNeil, said the findings support the importance of considering treatment options for sensory impairment, as this could help to improve the cognitive health of these older adults.

He said: “It is important that we consider the accessibility of common treatments for sensory impairment, such as hearing aids and cataract surgery.”

“It is possible that those who have difficulty accessing these treatment options will be more vulnerable to cognitive impairment. More research is needed to determine whether interventions for sensory impairment decrease the risk of subsequent cognitive decline.