Did you know that swallowing disorders are very common as we age? Or that some cognitive impairment can be reversed? Prowers Medical Center offers a variety of speech and language therapies, but some of the most common conditions treated are speech and language problems after stroke, swallowing disorders and cognitive impairment caused by diabetes or dementia.
You likely know that stroke can sometimes cause a weakness in one side of the body or the other, but did you know that it can also weaken the left or right side of the brain? When this happens, it can disrupt how a person speaks or communicates. It’s called aphasia.
“A stroke on the left side can damage the language area of the brain, which makes word finding and communicating in complete sentences difficult. Or it can damage the motor strip, which makes speaking impossible for some because the tongue and lips are not receiving the correct messages from the brain to form the correct vowels and consonants in a word. A stroke on the right side results in cognitive deficits. All forms of deficits from the left or right sided strokes can be rehabbed,” said Jessica Hall, Speech/Language Therapist with Prowers Medical Center.
Hall helps patients with stroke-related aphasia communicate by using both high tech and low tech alternative communication methods. For example, she may use pictures to give conversations a context or different apps to help a patient get their message across.
“It’s such a techie world. There are speech-generating devices that help people communicate. There are even apps you can download on your iPhone or Android phone. I use them with my stroke patients, but also for kids with autism and motor speech disorders, as well as people with MS and ALS,” she said.
Swallow Disorders (Dysphagia)
Have you noticed elderly loved ones cough a lot or clear their throat continually during or after meals? They may have an age-related swallow disorder. Swallowing disorders are very common as we age, and they also can occur after stroke or with cognitive impairment.
“As we get older, our swallowing muscles weaken. It can happen to anyone with aging. By strengthening muscles in the pharynx or throat, people can get back to swallowing normally. Our bodies are amazing at healing themselves if we are willing to do the work,” Hall explained.
She uses a neuro-muscular electrical stimulator—similar to what’s used on larger muscles in rehab—to stimulate throat muscles and strengthen them. Signs of dysphagia include coughing or throat clearing during meals or 20 minutes afterwards, watering eyes or runny nose during or after meals, and vocal changes during or after meals.
Hall describes dementia as a big umbrella with different types of cognitive impairment falling under it, including many causes besides Alzheimer’s Disease. She names Lou Gehrig’s, Parkinson’s, vascular dementia caused by stroke, stress, infections, medication side effects, and vision and hearing loss as other reasons for memory loss.
“A leading cause of the onset of signs and symptoms are people not wearing their hearing aids. Another is stress, especially for senior citizens who have just gone through a change in life like retiring or losing a spouse or loved one, because increases of the stress hormone, cortisol, can cause brain impairments,” she said.
In a good share of these cases, memory loss is reversible. Hall trains family members to help carry out brain exercises at home, and refers to a neurologist or another specialist as needed.
“If you or your loved one are diabetic, you should watch for cognitive changes. Blood sugar levels can affect the brain. When you add in stress and increased cortisol, the chance of impairment increases because cortisol and insulin have a symbiotic relationship,” Hall explained.
She also sees kids and urges parents of toddlers to call her if their provider suggests a speech language evaluation. Getting help early can avoid perpetual learning problems down the road.
“Speech and language therapy works. I’ve seen toddlers show up with 8 words in their vocabulary and 3 months later, they can use 50,” Hall concluded.