Most people are aware that the quality of their hearing and sight will likely reduce with age but growing older can also cause a decline in the other senses of taste, smell and touch, too. While everyone is different and the changes caused by aging will affect individuals in unique and different ways, some early warning signs might indicate you could be developing problems.
The aging process often causes a reduction in the sharpness of vision (visual acuity), most often resulting in problems with focusing on close-up objects (a condition called presbyopia).
As well as presbyopia, other common eye complaints caused by aging include intolerance of bright lights, a slowness in adapting to especially bright or dark environments and difficulty differentiating colors of similar hues (particularly blues and greens).
Also, the aged often experience so-called floaters (small particles floating in the field of vision), reduced peripheral vision or a reduction in the field of vision caused by weakened eye muscles. You may also suffer from dry eyes – a condition caused by the eyes not producing enough tears.
Indeed, the eyes are constantly changing through life and the pupils of a 60-year-old are only one third the size of someone aged 20. Most conditions noted above can be treated by visiting an optometrist, however, more serious eye complaints may also develop with age including cataracts, glaucoma, retinopathy and macular degeneration – all of which will require medical attention.
Hearing problems in the elderly are common and are caused by a slow degeneration of the structure inside the ear over time. However, the ears also control balance and it’s possible you may also find problems with orientation or a lack of steadiness trying to sit, stand or walk.
Other common problems include hearing loss (presbycusis) and tinnitus – a persistent abnormal noise in the ear. It’s also not uncommon to encounter a build-up of ear wax with age (treatable with syringing or drops).
If you encounter ear problems, an audiology specialist can help diagnose potential or developing hearing problems and will be able to recommend suitable treatment.
Taste and smell
Your sense of taste and smell are linked and sensing flavor is normally a combination of both senses. When we’re young, most people have around 10,000 taste buds capable of differentiating between the five common flavors – bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami (often described as a true savory taste and linked to the amino acid, glutamate). Through the aging process, our number of taste buds declines – and even those that remain tend to reduce in sensitivity.
Unfortunately, our sense of smell also diminishes with age – a problem thought to be caused by a reduction in the number of nerve endings located high in our nose lining, which normally send signals to the brain so that it can interpret odors.
Taste and smell problems can also be caused or exacerbated by a variety of diseases, smoking or exposure to toxins or other harmful particles in the air.
Touch and sensitivity to pain
Our skin, tendons, joints, muscles and internal organs feature a complex arrangement of nerve endings that send signals to our brains letting us interpret sensations such as body pain, pressure, temperature, vibration and even our body position. As we age, these sensations can also decrease, possibly caused by a reduction in the flow of blood to the nerve endings, brain or spinal cord.