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6 Diseases Linked to Communication Disorders in Seniors

Written by Jeff Anderson
 about the author
7 minute readLast updated April 5, 2023

Communicating with loved ones is an essential part of maintaining comfort and stability as someone ages. Advancing age and certain medical conditions can cause changes in hearing, speech, and cognition that negatively affect a senior’s ability to communicate and their overall quality of life. If your loved one is experiencing communication difficulties, it’s important to discuss any changes with their doctor, determine the root cause, explore treatment options, and make any necessary adjustments to communication styles going forward.

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If your parent or senior loved one is experiencing difficulty with hearing, speech or understanding, it may be worth researching the following health conditions and speaking about them with your parent’s physician.

1. Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s and related dementias can greatly hinder communication and understanding when areas of the brain responsible for comprehension and speech are damaged. While Alzheimer’s and most other common kinds of dementia are incurable and progressive, sometimes therapies can improve communication skills among people with the disease. Because Alzheimer’s is irreversible, however, people who are speaking with a loved one with the disease must be prepared to adapt their communication patterns to the situation. For instance, nonverbal cues such as maintaining eye contact and smiling can be helpful when talking with a loved one with the disease.

2. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

ALS, also commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a disabling, progressive disease that can cause difficulty speaking and swallowing, muscle atrophy and weakness. There is currently no cure for ALS and as the disease progresses, communication can become labored. Loved ones with ALS can work with occupational therapists and speech language-pathologists to mitigate speech problems, although they can they lose their ability to speak altogether.

3. Hearing Loss

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), one in three people over age 60 experience hearing problems, and that figure increases to 50% in seniors over 80. Hearing loss can be most problematic when it’s not recognized. Recent studies have linked hearing loss to Alzheimer’s and according to the American Academy of Audiology, untreated hearing loss is also linked to depression and social isolation in seniors, so it’s important to watch out for signs of hearing difficulties. Signs of hearing loss can include avoiding social interactions, frequently asking conversation partners to repeat themselves and listening to the radio or television at unusually loud volumes. If you think that a senior loved one may be experiencing hearing loss, arrange a doctor’s visit right away. Audiologists are adept at diagnosing hearing problems and in recent years, hearing aids and other adaptive devices have become more powerful while decreasing in price.

4. Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis can cause difficulty with both speech and understanding. While MS is typically diagnosed before old age, it is a condition that many seniors live with. Problems with the swallowing reflex which are prevalent among people with MS can cause difficulty speaking, while cognitive problems associated with MS can impede understanding. According to a study published on the NIH website, half of the people with MS have communication difficulty. The National MS Society has published an excellent guide to speech problems for MS patients and their loved ones, which includes a number of practical tips. For example, it suggests that people with MS who are struggling with their speech use a recorder to help themselves learn to correct their speech. The document also reminds family members to keep an eye out for communication problems in loved ones: “A person with MS may not notice his or her own speech problems. Many times a family member or physician brings it up.”

5. Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease affects about 1% of seniors over 60 in the U.S. In people with Parkinson’s, damage to a region of the brain called the “basal ganglia” often causes speech problems. These problems can manifest themselves as problems with articulation, reduced fluency and voice changes; although it’s usually not until the later stages of the illness that these problems can cause the sufferer to become unintelligible.  An NIH document describes three general treatment strategies for the speech problems caused by Parkinson’s:

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  • Communication-oriented strategies” involve educating and empowering the listener to better understand the person with Parkinson’s. For example, family members of people with Parkinson’s are taught active listening to help them understand their loved one.
  • “Low-tech augmentative and alternative communication” (low-tech ACC) aims to help people with more advanced speech problems through a strategy known as alphabet supplementation, where “a speaker points to the first letter of each word on an alphabet soundboard as it is spoken.
  • “Speaker-oriented” treatments help the person with Parkinson’s compensate for speech problems independently through instruction and practice.

6. Stroke-Related Aphasia

Aphasia is a disorder that impairs one’s ability to use and understand language. The leading cause of aphasia is stroke and one in four people who have a stroke will develop aphasia, according to the National Stroke Association. There are several different categories of aphasia and no two person’s symptoms are completely the same. Many people do recover, at least somewhat, from aphasia, but the Stroke Association says that recovery is not likely when symptoms have persisted for more than six months after the stroke. Speech therapy is the primary treatment for aphasia, although other approaches have been tried as well. One interesting therapy is known as “melodic intonation therapy,” whereby patients are sometimes able to sing words and phrases that they cannot speak.

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Meet the Author
Jeff Anderson

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom (of which OurParents is a trademark) and the reader.  Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site.  Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not recommend or endorse the contents of the third-party sites.