How the Aging Process Affects the Five Senses

Lisa Reisman

As we age, our bodies change significantly. Although some of these changes can happen immediately, most tend to occur over a period of time. One challenge which the elderly face is the decline of their senses. Let’s take a closer look at what can happen to the five senses throughout the aging process. Hearing Loss Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. Roughly one third of Americans aged 65 to 74 and half of those aged 75 and older suffer from hearing loss. Hearing loss can come in many forms, ranging from a mild case—for example, missing certain pitched sounds—to a total loss of hearing. Hearing loss can be hereditary or it can result from disease, trauma, certain medications or long-term exposure to loud noise. The most common form of hearing loss for the elderly is presbycusis, which progresses gradually with age. Presbycusis commonly affects people over 50, making those individuals likely to lose some amount of hearing each year. Some seniors may not want to admit they have trouble hearing. Older people who experience hearing loss often withdraw from others in order to avoid feelings of frustration and embarrassment that emerge when they cannot understand what is being said. Unfortunately, it is common practice for others to call these seniors confused or uncooperative when the real problem is legitimate hearing loss. As a result, seniors who lose their hearing are also prone to depression. In order to find the proper diagnosis for your loved one’s hearing problem, it is recommended that you consult with an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases of the ear, nose and throat. An otolaryngologist can often uncover the cause of a hearing problem and offer treatment options. Loss of Taste Compared to the loss of hearing, the loss of taste can be even trickier to detect. Typically, humans begin to lose taste buds after the age of 50. Taste enables us to enjoy food, and losing this ability affects different people in different ways. When taste is impaired, some people may eat too little while others may eat too much. Either of these can negatively affect a person’s health. A loss of appetite can lead to significant weight loss, poor nutrition, and a weakened immune system. Increased food consumption due to loss of taste can put a person at serious risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other illnesses. Many older people believe that there is nothing they can do about their weakened sense of taste. However, depending on the cause of the problem, a doctor may be able to suggest ways to regain the sense of taste or to cope with the loss of taste. Although there is no treatment for the loss of taste that occurs with aging, relief from other taste disorders is possible for many older people. Fading Sense of Smell It is completely normal for seniors to experience presbyosmia, the loss of smell due to aging. Smell generally tends to decline after age 60. Many older people are not even aware that they have this problem because the changes occur gradually over several years. It’s crucial to be mindful of this possibility because there are potential health risks. People may not even notice their problems with smell until there is an accident like failing to detect spoiled food or dangerous smoke. Be sure to consult with your doctor regularly to detect subtle changes in your loved one’s sense of smell. Your doctor can also use special tests to differentiate issues of taste and smell, which are commonly confused. Although there is no treatment for presbyosmia, relief from other smell disorders is possible for many older people. Touch Throughout life, our bodies naturally begin to wear down, especially our skin. The environment dries and thins our skin over time, which diminishes sensitivity in our nervous systems. That means that our brains and bodies no longer understand what they are touching. Is it pleasurable, or is it harmful? Without those sensations, your loved one will not be able to sense pain as well. A dulled sense of pain can be dangerous because it prevents your loved one from noticing injuries and risks like exposure to extreme temperatures. It can also make them more vulnerable to bruising, sores, and even brain damage and mental illness. Encourage your loved one to remain physically active to help keep their nerves healthy. Make sure that they’re equipped with items like gloves and lotion to protect and nurture their skin. Another illness to look out for is diabetes. This malady is related closely to sensitivity and is another common issue for seniors. Be sure to consult a doctor, and maybe a dietician, for signs and treatment for diabetes. Lastly, be sure that you continue to engage in physical affection with your elderly loved ones. Using the sense of touch is one of the best ways to preserve it. Sight As we age, our sense of sight dims significantly. As our pupils shrink over time, they have more difficulty focusing on objects and perceiving light, and the world becomes darker and blurrier. In addition to natural decline in sight, many seniors also suffer from cataracts, causing great pain if left unchecked. Diminished vision increases the risk of accidents, affects balance, and increases the likelihood of a fall. Remember to schedule regular checkups with an ophthalmologist to look for cataracts and to keep eye prescriptions up to date. At home, activate your loved one’s sight with visually stimulating games or artwork, which can help seniors to keep their ability to distinguish colors, lights, and shapes. Conclusion The loss of the senses is a part of the aging process, and although it may be intimidating for your loved ones, awareness and acknowledgement can improve their ability to manage these changes. Notice the signs and the risks, and even more importantly, try to be understanding of what your loved ones are going through. Your support will improve their health and their lives as whole.

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