COMMENTARY Sensory impairments can affect mind, mood
Loss of acuity in hearing and vision is a common accompaniment to aging. This gradual onset of sensory deprivation can have important effects on the brain, including an adverse impact on mind, mood and memory. Sensory impairment adversely impacts everything, including interaction with environment, relationships, activities and feelings of selfworth. It can lead to depression, anxiety, social isolation and many other problems.
In April, a study presented at the International Congress Series in London found that among people with seriously impaired vision, 22 percent exhibited signs of major depression, characterized by low mood lasting two weeks or more with symptoms such as pervasive sadness, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, feelings of worthlessness, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, agitation, fatigue and sometimes suicidal thoughts. A National Council of Aging study of people with hearing loss found that among individuals with untreated impairment, up to 30 percent reported major depression and up to 17 percent reported suffering anxiety in the preceding year.
Although the reasons for change are not clear, a correlation has been found between hearing and vision loss and cognitive and memory impairment. A three-year study (2002-2004) measuring age-related macular degeneration found a strong link between visual problems and cognitive impairment. Subjects with the greatest degree of visual impairment also had the poorest scores on six tests designed to measure thinking, learning and memory, with scores decreasing as vision decreased. Researchers at Brandeis Univer- sity at Waltham, Mass., compared people with mild-to-moderate hearing impairment with a control group. They found that when participants were read a list of 15 words and instructed to remember only the last three words, those with hearing impairment, although able to remember the final word as well as controls, did significantly worse at remembering the other two words.
If you have no serious impairment, be proactive by getting regular checkups and taking preventative measures: protect your eyes from ultraviolet radiation, use eye protection when operating machinery that may inflict injury from flying objects or sparks, protect your hears by avoiding loud noise sources and keeping earphone volumes low, maintain health by giving up smoking and managing conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure that can damage eyes and/or ears, eat a healthy diet and ask your doctor about taking supplements thought to protect eyesight (bilberry) and prevent hearing problems (ginko biloba and vinpocetine).
To cope with existing impairment, recognize that you or a loved one may need assistance, try to accept help from others and take advantage of devices such as magnifying lenses and hearing aids that can help ensure independence. EyeCare American, the American Academy of Audiology and Vision USA offer support and information for people coping with hearing and vision impairment.