Understanding how the five senses change as we age can help all of us make accommodations that allow aging family and friends to get more satisfaction out of life. As much as we want an elder person to enjoy a meal with us or observe and take part in what we are seeing or talking about, we do have to remember it is difficult and discouraging that inevitably the five senses do change and diminish as we age.
Changes in a person’s five senses tend to arise from several different factors, including changes in how the nerves communicate with the brain. There can also be physical alterations to the body parts used for sensing things in the environment, such as what could happen if the ears are exposed to trauma.
Here is a brief description of the top five senses that we sometimes take for granted but very much miss as they change with time.
The sense of smell becomes less sharp
A person’s sense of smell declines gradually over time, especially after age 70. This phenomenon is called presbyosmia and is not preventable. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, presbyosmia may be related to a loss of nerve endings and reduced mucus production in the nose, which facilitates the detection of smells.
However, medical researchers from Australia have found that true age-related olfactory decline appears to be much more gradual and less prevalent among healthy seniors without other risk factors for smell disorders. Their findings suggest that, while advancing age plays a role in the loss of smell, other factors that are more common with age, such as neurological disorders and medication use, may have a more pronounced effect on olfactory function.
Getting a Grip on losing our sense of touch
While some senses diminish, the sense of touch tends to increase. Seniors begin to develop thinner skin that’s often more sensitive to common sensations. For instance, a seam in clothing could create serious irritation.
But skin can also lose its sensitivity in older adults. Sensations like pressure, pain, cold and heat do not feel the same as they used to feel. Decreases in touch sensitivity may cause seniors to drop things or lose their grip more easily.
Experts agree that, seniors should ensure they grip onto things tightly enough that it will not slip. ”With aging, sensations may be reduced or changed. These changes can occur because of decreased blood flow to the nerve endings or to the spinal cord or brain. The spinal cord transmits nerve signals and the brain interprets these signals.
“Health problems, such as a lack of certain nutrients, can also cause sensation changes,” according to a report from Oregon State University. “Brain surgery, problems in the brain, confusion, and nerve damage from injury or chronic diseases such as diabetes can also result in sensation changes.”
“Many studies have shown that with aging, you may have reduced or changed sensations of pain, vibration, cold, heat, pressure, and touch. It is hard to tell whether these changes are related to aging itself or to the disorders that occur more often in the elderly.”
Vision changes are inevitable
Most people are familiar with the idea that they’ll lose some of their ability to see as they age It is important to make it to regular eye exams, and make sure to manage chronic health conditions that affect vision, such as diabetes and heart disease. Slowing down vision loss means your loved one can enjoy the vibrancy of life for a longer time.
A few signs of weaker vision among seniors include
- Hazy vision that might be worse in bright light.
- Weaker vision at night, particularly when driving; trouble seeing movement, details, or objects (especially street signs)
- Blinding or uncomfortable glare from automobile headlights or bright sunlight.
- A need for brighter light for reading.
Hearing tends to slowly decrease
Hearing loss is something many of us are experiencing but our seniors really do become more isolated if they are experiencing hearing loss. There are ways to preserve the sense of hearing by being careful to protect the ears. Seniors should get hearing tests regularly to identify changes in their ability to hear. If there’s a problem, modern hearing devices can help them socialize and recognize warning signs of danger, such as a siren. Your loved one can also avoid loud noises by wearing earplugs when exposure is unavoidable.
Signs of hearing loss include the following:
- Have trouble hearing over the telephone.
- Find it hard to follow conversations when two or more people are talking.
- Often ask people to repeat what they are saying.
- Need to turn up the TV volume so loud that others complain.
- Have a problem hearing because of background noise.
Taste Buds Slowly Lose Their Sharpness
Finally, the sense of taste also decreases slowly over time, and people who smoke or drink excessively may notice this happening sooner than those who don’t. Some loss of taste and smell is natural with aging, especially after age 60. But other factors can contribute to loss of taste and smell, including: Nasal and sinus problems, such as allergies, sinusitis or nasal polyps. Viral infections, including the common cold and the flu. Of your four taste sensations — sweet, salty, sour, and bitter — sweet and salty are often the first to go, so at the very least, you may over-salt your food, which could cause your blood pressure to rise and put your heart health at risk.
You can accommodate for a decreasing sense of taste by flavoring your food with fresh spices and herbs. Adding more color to the plate can also make meals more enjoyable. Here are a few more suggestions including the following:
Make meals social events.Eat with other seniors or at extended-family celebrations, potluck dinners, and community meals, You’re more likely to eat well and get proper nutrition when you’re having a good time with family and friends. The Brookhouse Home is a place where we have three meals a day together each day.
Watch the temperature.Food that is supposed to be hot tastes better when it actually is hot, and food that is supposed to be served cold tastes better when it is cold, says Jessica Crandall, RD, CDE, program director for Sodexo Wellness and Nutrition Services and an ADA spokeswoman. “To increase the taste, you may need to make your dishes a little warmer or a little colder,” she says.
Use more herbs and spices. Herbs and spices will add flavor without increasing your blood pressure the way that salt does, Gerbstadt says. “There are hundreds available that will liven up any entrée or meal.” Crandall recommends basil for Italian foods; cilantro for Mexican, Latin American, and Asian cuisine; oregano for Italian and Greek cuisine; and turmeric for Indian cuisine. Cooked vegetables such as beets, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, turnips, and winter squash can benefit from some caraway, and dill seeds are a great addition to rice and fish dishes. Another no- or low-sodium option is citrus juice, citrus zest, or flavored and aged vinegars, Gerbstadt says.
Try something new.“When you try new foods and experiment with recipes, you create variety,” Crandall says. “Variety can make meals more enticing and can build better nutrition into what you’re eating.” Even seniors who are set in their ways can be tempted to try something new and nutritious if it contains ingredients they like.
Savor your favorite meal. People very often have a particular time of day when they have a bigger appetite. For some, it’s right after they wake up, so breakfast is their main meal. For others, it’s later in the day, when they’re more alert but relaxed. Pay attention to what time of day you’re hungriest, and then make the most out of the meal that coincides with that time.