As we age, the way our senses — hearing, vision, taste, smell and touch — give us information about the world can change. Senses can become less sharp and can affect a person’s lifestyle. You might notice that an aging loved one is beginning to have problems communicating, enjoying activities and meals and socializing with people. These sensory changes can lead to isolation. If you have aging loved ones in your life, it can be easy to get frustrated when they have trouble seeing, hearing or keeping their balance. Or you may wonder why they add so much salt to their food or don’t seem to enjoy a favorite sweet. It’s important to understand the changes taking place.
All senses can be affected by aging, but hearing and vision are most affected. Our ears have two jobs, hearing and maintaining balance. As people age, structures inside the ear start to change and their functions decline. The ability to pick up sound decreases, and some people may have problems maintaining balance.
Our eye structures change with aging as well. The cornea becomes less sensitive, so an eye injury could occur and go unnoticed. Also, a 60-year-old’s pupils are about one-third the size they were at age 20 and are slower to respond to light changes. Colors may also change as people age. It may get harder to tell the difference between blues and greens. For some people, it is better to have a red light as a night light than a traditional white light. Reduced peripheral vision also is common as we age. This can limit activity and interacting with others. It may be harder to communicate with someone sitting right next to you because you cannot see him or her very well.
Many of these changes can be helped or even resolved with the right glasses and hearing aids.
Our senses of taste and smell work together, as most tastes come from odors. Our sense of smell begins at the nerve endings high in the lining of our noses. We have about 9,000 taste buds that are responsible for sensing sweet, salty, sour and bitter tastes. Our smell and taste play an important role in enjoyment and safety. These senses also allow us to detect danger, such as spoiled foods, gas smells and smoke.
The number of taste buds decreases as a person ages, making food less satisfying. Salty and sweet tastes usually fade first, followed by bitter and sour. Also, as a person ages, saliva production decreases, leading to dry mouth, which also affects taste.
As the sense of smell diminishes, especially after age 70, a safety issue can pop up. An older person may no longer be able to smell odors such as natural gas or smoke from a fire. It’s important to have working smoke detectors and other alarms in an older person’s home.
As a person ages, the sense of touch also decreases. An older person might not be aware of pain, temperature, pressure, vibration and body position. These changes can be related to decreased blood flow to our nerve endings. Lack of certain nutrients also can cause sensation changes. With decreased temperature sensitivity, it can be hard to tell the difference between cool and cold and between hot and warm, increasing the risk of injuries. A person may feel and recognize pain, but it might not bother them as much as it did years ago. After age 50, many people have reduced sensitivity to pain.
If you or a loved one are having symptoms of changes in touch and pain or problems standing or walking, talk with your health care provider. It’s also important to discuss any decrease in senses to rule out causes other than aging. There may be ways to manage the symptoms. Most important, just keep in mind it is all part of getting older and “Growing old isn’t for sissies.”
Cher Haack is the executive director of The Lodge Assisted Living Facility in Carson City.