Dementia diagnosis when someone has sensory loss

Sensory loss can ‘mask’ dementia

If a person has a sensory loss, it may make it harder to recognise the onset and progression of dementia and even ‘mask’ dementia. For example, a person with sight loss may be in the early stages of dementia, but family and friends assume that their relative’s problem with getting about is explained by their impaired vision. Staff or family may wrongly assume that confusion in a person with hearing loss is being caused by a malfunctioning hearing aid rather than dementia despite the as-yet unexplained association between deafness and dementia.

Assessment and diagnosis

Given that the key risk factor for dementia is age, anyone working with older people must be aware of the complications that are inherent when diagnosing dementia in a person with sensory loss and take clear steps to be able to separate the two conditions.

Why is a diagnosis of dementia important?
A person living with sensory loss may benefit from getting a diagnosis of dementia in the same way as anyone else. They may be prescribed disease-delaying treatments as well as have the opportunity to make plans about how to remain independent for as long as possible.

Person-centred testing

People with sensory loss should be tested and assessed by a practitioner who understands both sensory loss and dementia. It’s important to ascertain an individual’s preferred method of communication and ensure information is presented in an accessible format, taking into account things, for example, font size and colour contrasts. Tests which rely on visual interpretation of information or being able to hear questions may not be helpful.

A person who lives with sensory impairment or loss will have developed ways of coping with their condition that need to be noted. Every effort should be made to use and maintain the equipment they use. For example:

It’s important to encourage all older people to have regular hearing and sight tests. Sensory losses change and deteriorate.

Once a diagnosis is made, accessible information and communication methods is critical for enabling a person with sensory loss and/or dementia to access suitable services. 

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