The ability to speak, hear, and understand language and conversation are central to almost every aspect of daily life. Yet, these skills are often taken for granted until someone loses them. For older Americans, communication disorders are among the most common challenges they may face. Unfortunately, these disorders may go untreated for years—or may never be treated.
Often, lack of treatment or treatment delays are due to myths about certain disorders (such as “they are just part of the normal aging process”) or outdated perceptions of treatment. During May Is Better Hearing & Speech Month, it’s important to prioritize treatment—because the ability to communicate takes care.
Types of Communication Disorders
Hearing loss is one of the most common chronic health conditions, affecting 50 million Americans. It is highly prevalent among adults, often with serious impact on daily life and functioning. In fact, 8.5% of adults aged 55–64 have disabling hearing loss. Nearly 25% of those aged 65–74 and 50% of those who are age 75 and older have disabling hearing loss. Unfortunately, among adults aged 70 and older who have hearing loss and who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three (30%) has ever used them. This is in spite of the fact that hearing loss may affect everything from mental health (anxiety, depression, and feelings of social isolation) to vocational success (including premature departure from the workforce) to other health issues (among them, earlier onset of dementia)—and the fact that treatment advances and today’s hearing aids are more effective and less noticeable than ever.
Speech, Language and Swallowing
In the areas of voice, speech, and language, many disorders may affect older Americans. Some may be the result of another health condition, and some may occur on their own. Aphasia (a loss of the ability to use or understand language) is most common in people in their middle to late years. Difficulty with speech and swallowing (both issues treated by speech-language pathologists) may result from medical conditions such as stroke or oral cancer. Treatment for these disorders is critical to daily functioning and improved quality of life.
The Role of Loved Ones
In the case of older adults, loved ones such as a spouse or adult child are often significantly affected by a family member’s communication difficulties. These loved ones are also the people who are in the best position to influence the decision to seek treatment. If you have a concern about a loved one’s speech or hearing, encourage them to seek an evaluation from a certified audiologist or speech-language pathologist. If a course of treatment does follow, loved ones play an important role in providing support—from accompanying the person to treatment visits and helping to provide medical information to being compassionate and understanding throughout the process.
Hearing and balance disorders are treated by audiologists, and speech/language and swallowing disorders are treated by speech-language pathologists. People seeking treatment for themselves or loved ones should look for professionals who are certified. These people will have the letters “CCC” following their names when representing themselves professionally (CCC-A for audiologists and CCC-SLP for speech-language pathologists). The CCCs indicate that the person has met the highest standards of professional excellence in his or her field. If you need help finding a certified professional, visit http://www.asha.org/profind/.