It’s a fact of life that our bodies become less efficient with age. Our vision declines. Hearing gets more difficult. And our brains don’t react as quickly as they used to.
“Most of us notice a decline in the capabilities of our sensory organs as we age,” says Jasdeep Sidhu, M.D., a geriatric medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health. “Over time without intervention, you may have problems communicating, enjoying activities and staying involved in your community. You may even be at greater risk of accidents and injury.”
Breaking Down Sensory Changes
You need a certain amount of stimulation before your brain registers sensations like sound, light or smells, and that threshold level increases with age. The older you get, the more input you need to make sense of your surroundings.
But that natural sensory slowdown doesn’t have to compromise your quality of life. Knowing how senses change with age will help you compensate for declines. Here are some changes to be aware of:
Aging affects every area of the eye. The cornea becomes more sensitive and prone to injury. The pupil begins to respond more slowly to variations in light and darkness. And the lens can harden, which alters the path of light into your eye. Eye muscles begin to atrophy, too, which impacts your ability to rotate your eyes.
Tools for change: Whether you have trouble seeing near or far, notice floaters in your eyes or have trouble with glare in the evening, there are a number of tools to help you see more clearly. “Depending on the problem, there are a variety of treatment options, including eyeglasses, contacts, laser surgery and magnifying devices,” Dr. Sidhu says. An annual exam with an ophthalmologist can determine whether you have conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration. In every case, early detection and treatment is associated with better outcomes.
How to slow it down: Studies show that keeping blood sugar levels stable and wearing sunglasses and goggles can help protect your vision over the long haul. There’s also evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in fat and cholesterol can prevent vision loss.
Aging changes the structures in your ear. You may not be able to pick up sounds as easily and you may experience difficulties maintaining your balance as you sit, stand and walk. In addition to not being able to hear well, many people notice periodic ringing or buzzing, known as tinnitus. Unfortunately, these changes can trigger negative health effects such as isolation, cognitive impairment and depression.
Tools for change: Hearing aid and implant technology has advanced dramatically. These devices amplify sound and are mostly risk-free.
How to slow it down: If you’re in an environment where you have to yell to be heard, you should be wearing ear protection, even if you don’t yet have hearing loss. The degree of hearing damage from noise exposure is based on both the intensity of the noise and the duration of exposure. And don’t forget to remove ear wax. “Wax buildup increases with age, so simply having the wax removed can dramatically improve your hearing,” Dr. Sidhu says.
Taste and smell
Taste and smell go hand in hand and they both fade as we age. Taste buds decrease in size and number and your sensitivity to each of the five tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami) begins to decline. The sense of smell diminishes because there are fewer nerve endings and less mucus in your nasal cavity. Both senses impact our interest in eating and socializing. “If you don’t enjoy food, you may be less inclined to meet friends for meals and beverages,” Dr. Sidhu says.
Tools for change: While you can’t necessarily stall the natural progression of taste- and smell-related declines, you can spice up your food and make it more tempting. Instead of resorting to sugar and salt, flavor your food with fresh herbs and spices. Temperature makes a difference, too. “Some people find that cold foods taste better than hot foods,” Dr. Sidhu says. If you get a metallic taste when you eat, consider using plastic utensils instead of metal.
How to slow it down: Avoid smoking and alcohol – both can sabotage your taste buds. A variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications also impact smell and taste. If you feel like your senses of smell and taste are taking a hit, talk to your doctor to see if there are alternative medications that don’t carry the same side effects.
Aging impacts the nerve endings involved with pain, pressure, temperature, vibration and body position. As you age, you may have more difficulty sensing extreme cold or heat. When you finally do sense the pain, your reaction time isn’t as speedy. The end result: Older people are more vulnerable to cold and burn injuries and pressure ulcers.
Tools for change: Keep your water heater set at a safe temperature (below 120°F). Base your clothing decisions on the temperature rather than how you feel. Always wear sunscreen (clothes are the best sunscreen), bug repellent and take other protective measures to ensure there’s a barrier between you and any potential threats.
How to slow it down: There’s not much you can do to slow down a declining sense of touch. Instead, try to support your skin and nerve endings. Indulge in a monthly massage, slather on luxurious lotions and oils. Hydrate sufficiently. And take every opportunity to hold hands with loved ones.
Your Senses and Safety
Unfortunately, sensory decline can pose safety concerns. Can’t hear well? You won’t be aware of potential threats. Can’t smell and taste? You might eat less and lose weight. Can’t see? You could have a catastrophic slip and fall.
Over time, sensory deficits may also cause seniors to lose their independence, which can lead to social isolation and depression. To minimize the risk, it’s important to stay up to date with your wellness visits. “See a physician, hearing specialist and ophthalmologist at least annually and consider visiting with a geriatrician, a physician who specializes in issues that affect older adults,” Dr. Sidhu suggests.
Dr. Jasdeep Sidhu is a geriatric medicine specialist who sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.