NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Making Sense of Sensory Losses as We Age

Making Sense of Sensory Losses as We Age


            The process of aging begins at birth and continues throughout life. Change is an inevitable part of the aging process. Sensation is the physical and mental process that allows us to receive information from our surrounding environment through the ears, skin, tongue, nostrils and eyes.

             Key sensing processes include vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Sensory loss is defined as a decreased ability to respond to stimuli that affect our senses (hearing, touch, etc.). For example, vision loss might mean that we cannot see a person across the street wave at us, or hearing loss might result in us struggling to hear people speaking in a certain tone of voice.          Sensory loss is inevitable, but that does not mean adults who are losing one or more of their senses have no options available to them. Physical changes associated with aging, beyond gray hair and wrinkles, are not always visually noticeable, are constantly changing and can affect us in many ways. Imagine not being able to see a beautiful sunset, hear your grandchildren playing or smell your favorite flowers.

            These losses affect people in different ways. The impact of these losses can lead to social isolation, loneliness and feelings of depression.

            Sensory changes do not occur at the same age for each person, nor do all changes occur for everyone or to the same degree. Studies have shown changes accelerate at these approximate age ranges:

 Vision — mid-50s

 Hearing    mid-40s

 Touch — mid-50s

 Taste — mid-60s

 Smell — mid-70s

            Understanding sensory loss can help individuals adapt and accept these natural changes. Equally important is not accepting a change as a normal part of aging without first understanding the loss. A variety of resources that can help minimize the impact of sensory losses as we age are often are available.

            Alteration of the environment to compensate for age-related sensory losses is necessary for many older adults to maintain their independent living.

            Loss of hearing is usually very gradual, starting at middle age. The loss appears to be caused by a decrease in the elasticity of the eardrum. Hearing loss often develops slowly and quietly. People may complain that they can hear the spoken sounds, but they can’t understand what the speaker is saying. Words that are quite different can sound the same, such as tea/pea/key, shop/shot/shock or fine/shine/sign. Impaired hearing affects more older adults than any other chronic condition. Although only 2 percent of people 55 and older are classified as legally deaf, 30 percent to 50 percent of older adults suffer a hearing loss serious enough to negatively affect the quality of communication and interpersonal relationships.

            People with hearing loss have a decreased ability to hear high frequencies and sounds in general. Sounds may be muffled and difficult to understand. Studies find that high-frequency sounds are filtered out or not heard. Therefore, asking individuals to speak louder may not make the message easier to understand. People with decreased ability to hear may deny or be embarrassed to talk about the problem. Hearing aids, while very beneficial, never can replace normal hearing.

            Many background noises from radio, television, appliances, traffic or busy public gatherings all detract from hearing normal conversation. Other obstacles that may be treatable also could be playing a part in hearing loss.   To accommodate an individual with hearing loss, try to cut down on background noise. Turn off the television or radio during conversations. Ask for quiet sections in restaurants, and try to sit away from the door at theaters.

            Many people are not aware that an individual’s sense of smell and his or her sense of taste are closely related. Humans can recognize as many as 10,000 different scents, compared with the sense of taste, which is limited to four basic categories: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The sense of smell is very important, but often taken for granted. Sensory losses in taste and smell can lead to other health concerns for aging individuals. At age 30, a person has 245 taste buds on each of the tiny elevations (called papilla) on the tongue. By age 70, the number of taste buds decreases to approximately 88. The sense of taste changes slowly. Sweet and salty tastes seem to be the first affected. For older people, normal seasoning may seem bland. Use of herbs instead of salt may be one answer to increasing the flavor of foods without increasing sodium content, especially for older adults who have high blood pressure.

            The lack of taste appeal may discourage the older adult from eating, which may indirectly lead to poor nutrition. One way to compensate for the loss of taste sometimes seen with illness and aging is to concentrate on contrasts in texture, temperature and flavor in preparing foods.

Smell also makes things enjoyable. Our “odor memories” frequently have strong emotional qualities and are associated with the good or bad experiences in which they occurred. Also, when eating a favorite food, the taste is much more flavorful when a person is feeling healthy, as opposed to being congested.

            The sense of smell is not only important to taste, but it is also essential for detecting signs of danger, such as smoke, gas leaks and spoiled food. A person living with the loss of smell needs to take extra safety precautions. Smoke detectors are a necessity in all areas of the home, especially in the kitchen and near fireplaces. The sense of smell is equally important for identifying spoiled food. Because smell plays an important role in sense related to food quality, safety precautions in handling food are important for older adults. This particularly includes proper storage of food, refrigeration and other food safety guidelines.

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