How the Five Senses Change with Age—Plus Tips for Protecting Each

Last update on Oct, 23, 2019

The aroma of freshly roasted coffee brings us comfort—it warms our palm as we grasp the mug and invigorates our spirit upon first sip.

Every day is filled with stimuli that flood our senses. But as we age, our senses gradually dull. In fact, more than 90% of older adults experience deficits in at least one of the five basic senses, and over two-thirds have two or more sensory deficits.

So, what are the five senses? How do they change with age, and what can we do to protect them? Read on to find out.

Sense of sight

Several parts of the eye change as we get older. Nerve density in the cornea—the clear, dome-shaped “window” in front of your pupil—decreases with age. As a result, you may not notice minor injuries to the outer eye.

The eye’s lens becomes more rigid with age, making it difficult to change shape. This hinders the ability to focus on nearby objects, compromising our sense of sight. Proteins in the lens also begin to break down, which leads to cataracts, or cloudy areas on the lens. This can cause blurred or hazy vision.

Our pupils naturally shrink over time, too, and react to light and darkness more slowly. This makes it harder to tolerate glare from bright lights or sunlight and to see well in low light (ex. night driving).

The center part of the retina—the tissue in the back of the eye that sends visual information to the brain via the optic nerve­—can also start to deteriorate, leading to age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This can cause wavy or blurred vision, or even lead to central vision loss if untreated. As we age, it’s important to protect all five senses, including eyesight.

What you can do:

Nix the nicotine.

Smoking can double your risk of age-related macular degeneration while also speeding up the formation of cataracts.

Watch your waistline.

Staying active can reduce your chance of developing diabetes, a condition known to damage the eye’s retina and quicken the formation of cataracts. A diet rich in dark, leafy greens and fish has also been shown to protect eye health.

See an eye care professional regularly.

Regular, comprehensive dilated eye exams done by a professional can help detect age-related eye diseases early on, which can slow their progression or prevent future vision loss.

Sense of smell

Our sense of smell is hotwired to the parts of our brain involved in processing memories and emotion. Smells can spark old memories, stir up emotions and even signal us to danger (ex. smelling smoke or spoiled food). But as we age, our sense of smell naturally weakens. Certain conditions can also cause a temporary, or more sudden, loss of smell. Seasonal allergies, colds and even certain medications can impact our nasal cavity and passageways­—leading to blocked sinuses, inflammation or polyps (small growths). A visit to your primary doctor or ENT specialist can help determine the root of the issue.

(Note: Difficulty in identifying smells can sometimes be an early sign of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer's disease. Consult your doctor if you notice a change in your sense of smell.)

What you can do:

Stop smoking.

Several studies have linked smoking with an impaired sense of smell, but here’s the good news: There’s evidence that quitting can gradually restore your ability to enjoy life’s aromas.

Check your meds.

Certain antibiotics and blood pressure medications have been shown to inhibit our sense of smell. Ask your doctor if there are other medicines you can take or alternative forms of treatment.

Find your happy place.

Research reveals that depression and a dulled sense of smell are deeply linked; one can often impact the other. However, exercise, socializing with others and exploring hobbies are great ways to cultivate happiness. If you need a bigger boost, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional.

Sense of touch

Our skin contains many nerve receptors, which allow us to perceive pressure, pain and other tactile sensations. The outer part of our skin, called the epidermis, includes different types of nerve endings (called mechanoreceptors) which impact our sense of touch.

As we age, the density and distribution of these receptors decrease. The result? Our skin becomes thinner, more fragile and less sensitive to touch. Things like temperature, texture and light touch become harder to detect—which can increase the risk of accidental injury (ex. touching a hot plate from the microwave). Cuts, bumps and burns take longer to heal, too. Aging skin glands also produce less oil, leading to dryness. Dry skin is less sensitive to touch and slows down the healing process for wounds.

What you can do:

Hydrate your skin.

Combat dryness by drinking plenty of fluids and slathering on moisturizer every day. Skip the hot baths and heavily perfumed soaps or lotions—these can make matters worse.

Limit direct sunlight.

The sun can dry out the skin and make it more rough, tight and calloused—causing it to become less sensitive to touch. Minimize sun damage by wearing protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats, in addition to applying sunscreen at least 15 to 30 minutes before heading outside.

Maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

Diabetes can damage the nerves in our hands and feet—directly impacting how we perceive touch. But regular exercise and a diet with plenty of fiber, fruit and veggies can prevent major swings in blood sugar. (Bonus: Exercise directs blood flow to our nerve endings to optimize sensory functioning.)

Sense of taste

Our tongues boast an impressive 10,000 taste buds, which send those signals of sweet, salty and sour to the brain. But as we get older, that number slowly decreases, and the remaining taste buds take longer to regenerate after injury (ex. burning your tongue from hot coffee). The result? Foods begin to taste blander. We may pile on the sugar or salt, which is bad news for our blood pressure, heart health and more. The mouth also produces less saliva with age, leading to dry mouth—a condition that can also impact our sense of taste.

What you can do:

Be mindful of medications.

Certain antibiotics and pills that lower cholesterol and blood pressure can change how food tastes or make your mouth dry. If you notice a change, consult your doctor to see if other treatment options are available.

Dial down the alcohol—and ditch the cigarettes.

Too much drinking can dull our sense of taste. Smoking (as mentioned earlier) has also been shown to hinder many senses, including taste. Fortunately, quitting smoking and cutting back on alcohol can help restore food’s many fun flavors. 

Spice up your life.

Think beyond salt and butter: Stimulate those taste buds with a sprinkle of ginger, garlic or fresh herbs, such as rosemary and thyme. Even a splash of lemon or lime juice can add a little zing to your dish.

Sense of hearing

As our lives progress, many of us begin to wonder about how to prevent hearing loss. It’s normal for our sense of hearing to gradually weaken as we get older. In fact, one in three adults aged 65-74 has hearing loss.

Age-related hearing loss (also called presbycusis) typically results from changes to the inner ear or the auditory nerve, which carries sound signals up to the brain for processing. While some degree of hearing loss is normal, certain factors can ramp up the damage. One of the biggest culprits? Noise. Repeated exposure to loud sounds can wreak havoc on the ear’s sensory hair cells, which are needed to hear properly.

Our ear wax also becomes drier with age, making it harder to naturally fall out. Ear wax can block the ear canal, preventing sound waves from entering the inner ear. The result? Soft sounds are harder to hear, and loud sounds become more muffled.

What you can do:

Protect yourself from loud sounds.

Noise-induced hearing loss may be permanent, but it’s also highly preventable. Learn which noise levels are particularly damaging, then avoid or distance yourself from those sounds, or wear proper hearing protection when you know you’ll be exposed to them.

Nourish your ears with nutrients.

Did you know that certain vitamins and minerals can help protect your hearing? Discover which nutrients play a role in ear health—then stock your kitchen with foods rich in these essentials.

Get your hearing tested annually.

Since age-related hearing loss happens gradually, it can be difficult to detect on your own. Get your hearing checked regularly by an audiologist or hearing care specialist. He or she can determine the degree of hearing loss (if any) and whether hearing aids could help.

Hearing aids use advanced technology to selectively amplify certain sounds (ex. music and speech) while reducing feedback and noise. They can be custom-programmed to your unique listening needs and custom-fitted for maximum comfort. (Learn more about how hearing aids work.)

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