Our senses allow us a connection with the outside world, enriching our existence with knowledge and emotion. However, aging influences these vital senses as we progress through life. You may even be using reading glasses right now, recognizing that our ability to see distinct changes as we age. This article will discuss how human aging senses change with age and what you must do to maintain your senses as you age and even embrace them.
The Human Senses
Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling are the five most prominent senses that a human being may use. Each sense is essential to our ability to function in the environment and to have meaningful experiences.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, discovered significant associations between age, gender, and race in several age-related changes in the senses, with 94% of older citizens in the United States having at least one sensory deficit. In comparison, 38% have two, and 28% have three, four, or five. Moreover, some mental abilities genuinely improve with age.
In the absence of disease, for instance, the brain of an elderly individual possesses a more extensive vocabulary and polished language skills. The “hallmarks of aging” are a collection of interrelated biological processes and systems that all play a role in aging, including changes in our senses as we age. These hallmarks lead to aging and can affect our sensory perceptions. As these processes accumulate, sensory cells, brain circuits, and sensory function may change.
Preserving a lively and whole life as we age is crucial to accepting these changes and caring for our aging senses.
Changes in Vision
The eyes are subjected to the most severe tests of time, and seeing in low light becomes more challenging with aging. The shape of the eye lens changes, and the pupils may shrink to one-third the size of when you were 20 years old by the time you’re 60. The sharpness of visual acuity declines.
As you age, the vitreous, a gel-like material within the eye, begins to atrophy and thinner. This might cause specks or floaters to appear in your line of sight. Floaters often do not impair visual acuity.
The lens of your eyes also becomes less flexible. Presbyopia, one of the most well-known age-related changes, typically begins around age 40 and causes blurriness of the vision and makes it more challenging to focus on nearby objects. Recognition of items or the ability to focus on things at varying distances takes longer for older people. That’s why you need those reading glasses. In addition to changing transparency and density, the lenses gradually yellow and become more rigid.
Cataracts, glaucoma, and retinal conditions, including age-related macular degeneration, the primary cause of visual loss in those over 50, disproportionately afflict the elderly. To have a deeper level of information about these conditions, let’s read the article about age-related eye changes in humans. In summary, normal age-related changes to vision include:
- Decrease in sharpness of vision (visual acuity)
- Decrease in the ability to focus on objects at different distances
- Decrease in the ability to distinguish between specific colors
- Decrease in the ability to function in low light levels and adapt to darkness
- Decrease in the ability to adjust to glare
- Decrease in the ability to judge distance
Nearly everyone over 55 requires corrective lenses, at least at times. Several studies have linked impaired vision in the elderly to cognitive decline. (1)(2) It is unclear why, but logic suggests that deteriorating reading vision and hand-eye coordination would hinder the ability to perform brain-strengthening exercises.
Age-Related Hearing Loss
Hearing clarity naturally diminishes with age, and the aging process alters the structures of the ear. It typically goes unnoticed until the 50s and 60s, when the inability to hear high-pitched noises becomes noticeable. Consonants like s, z, t, f, and g are high-frequency sounds that can be difficult to hear. The vowels a, e, I, o, and u are more audible with their lower pitches. A recent 2023 study suggests that one-third of those between 65 and 74 suffer hearing loss.
Presbycusis is a common form of hearing loss in older adults and is characterized by a steady decline in a person’s ability to hear sounds. It’s not uncommon for hearing loss to start in childhood and gradually worsen during one’s twenties, thirties, and forties. Another prevalent condition among the elderly is tinnitus, or a constant, unnatural ringing in the ears. Tinnitus might be caused by mild hearing loss, ear wax accumulation, or even medication adverse effects.
The elderly can have trouble hearing things clearly and keeping their equilibrium when sitting, standing, and walking, as the ear plays the function of both balance and hearing. Wax buildup in the ear canal, which often occurs with advancing age, can also impair hearing.
Central nervous loss of hearing is one type of hearing loss that can be caused by aging (others occur due to blockage by wax, a foreign object of infection). In addition to hearing impairment, many individuals experience tinnitus, a periodic pounding or buzzing sound.
Incidences of presbycusis and tinnitus increase with age, and males have a higher prevalence of both conditions worldwide. Unfortunately, these alterations can result in adverse health consequences such as social isolation, cognitive decline, and depression.
Touch and Pain with Age
Your brain processes the variety and intensity of touch sensations. It classifies the experience as pleasant (like a nice warmth), unpleasant (like extreme heat), or neutral (like being aware that you are touching something).
Decreased blood supply to the spinal cord or brain can induce these changes. The brain receives nerve messages from the spinal cord and processes them.
It has been found that it may be more challenging to perceive pain, distinguish between temperatures, or locate one’s body in space. This becomes more evident around the 60s and lowly declines as the person ages. The loss of sensation in one’s feet due to diabetes-related nerve degeneration is only one example of how these difficulties might be exacerbated.
However, there is no age-related decline in people’s sensitivity to tactile differences like roughness/smoothness or hardness/softness.
70% of U.S. seniors with poor or merely fair touch sensitivity were observed in a research conducted in 2016.
Physiological issues like nutrient deficiency can alter the sense of touch, while brain surgery, disorders, disorientation, nerve damage from injuries, or chronic diseases like diabetes can cause changes in sensations.
Age-Related Changes in Taste and Smell
Our gustation, or sense of flavor, appears to age well. Chewing food releases molecules that stimulate taste receptors on the tongue, the palate, and the lining of the mouth. These cells send messages to the brain, which identifies specific flavors. But as we age, we inevitably lose part of our sense of taste around 50. Nonetheless, nearly everyone retains the ability to recognize the distinctive characteristics of meals that are primarily sweet, sour, bitter, or salty. Other circumstances include,
- The sense of taste can be affected by several drugs.
- Aging can also cause a decrease in saliva production in the mouth, which can negatively impact the taste.
- Similar to smell, smoking can also affect the sense of taste.
- Rather than the whole mouth being unable to taste, having problems in just one area is much more typical.
Often, what people attribute to a problem with their sense of taste is an issue with their sense of smell, also known as prebyiosmia. After age 50, the nerves responsible for smell weaken, and one’s sense of smell gradually declines. Almost one-quarter of men in their 60s have a disorder of the sense of smell, whereas only one-tenth of women do. Since the nose produces less mucus, scents are not always preserved in the nose for nerve endings to pick them up. Anosmia, or the complete inability to smell, is highly unusual.
Other conditions that can cause the sense of smell to diminish are,
- Colds, persistent sinusitis, or allergies can temporarily decrease smell sense.
- Medication, including antibiotics, can also decrease the smell.
- Nasal tumors, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and age-related loss of taste buds can also cause a smell sensation loss.
- Smoking can also contribute to this decline.
Similar to how a cold can temporarily decrease your sense of smell, it can also reduce your sense of taste.
According to studies, physical activity enhances the memory of the elderly with moderate cognitive impairment. Intriguingly, aerobic exercise appeared marginally superior for verbal memory, while resistance training appeared marginally exceptional for associative memory — the capacity to remember things in context. One factor may be the secretion of the protein cathepsin B by exercising muscles. At least in rats, this protein builds cells in the hippocampus, an essential memory-related brain region.
Not everyone goes through sensory changes at the same age or to the same degree, and not all changes happen at the same age.
Aging Gracefully Through the Years
Improving Touch As You Age
As we age, our skin loses some of its sensitivity to pain, warmth, and pressure, so taking care of it is crucial. It’s essential to take extra precautions to prevent injury, especially from hot things or being pressed too hard.
Regular exercise can help preserve your sense of touch by increasing blood flow. If you have diabetes, it is essential to maintain your blood sugar levels within the prescribed range. This reduces your risk of experiencing severe nerve damage.
Keeping The Taste Buds Alive
While you can’t necessarily stop the natural decline of your sense of taste and smell, you can liven up your food to make it more appealing. Instead of sugar and salt, use organic herbs and seasonings to flavor your food. Temperature also has an effect. Both smoking and alcohol can impair your sense of taste. Numerous over-the-counter and prescription medications affect smell and taste as well. If you feel that the feelings of smell and taste are diminishing, consult your doctor to determine if there are medications with fewer adverse effects. Smell Most importantly, if your sense of smell has reduced, check the functionality of your smoke detectors. You may be unable to detect smoke as strongly.
Managing the Vision
Some other essential vitamins and minerals for good eyesight are as follows:
- Vitamin A is required for healthy vision in low-light situations. Yellow and dark green vegetables, milk, eggs, shellfish, meat, wheat bran, and whole grains all contain vitamin A.
- Vitamin C, found in fruits and vegetables, promotes healthy eye lenses.
- According to some research, Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant that protects the eye from aging.
Maintain Health According to the National Institute of Health, maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and wearing protective eyewear like sunglasses and goggles have reduced the risk of long-term vision loss.
Light levels should be increased as people age. According to studies, a person 80 years of age will require around three times as much light as a young adult to read a book. Brighter lighting throughout the home and brighter lanterns for activities such as reading can help improve vision.
Also, consult your physician about regular eye exams to evaluate your health. This is one of the finest things you can do to safeguard your eyesight. Regular eye examinations help detect diseases in their earliest, most treatable stages. How often should one get an eye exam? Learn all about health and eye exams in our article here. Installing motion sensor lights is another option.
Caring for our senses may significantly improve our quality of life. Although aging causes a decline in sensory function, it can be mitigated by preventative care and sensory exercisesPreventiveve care, a healthy lifestyle, and sensory-enhancing activities may protect the unexpected enjoyment of seeing the world via one’s senses. Consult a geriatrician, a doctor who focuses on the unique healthcare needs of the elderly.