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Saving Our 5 Senses as We Age

Declines in hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch happen with age. Protect and enhance what's left

Save your senses

Photos by Erin Patrice O'Brien

Changes in sensory function can make everyday pleasures feel flat while increasing risk of other health issues.

Jazz trumpeter Kris Chesky pops in foam earplugs when he mows the lawn or gets on an airplane. Onstage, he asks the band to play quiet passages even more pianissimo. “Once you’ve got hearing loss, due to aging or sound exposure, you can’t get it back,” says Chesky, 58, a University of North Texas music professor and codirector of the Texas Center for Performing Arts Health. “I want to keep what I’ve got, even if it makes me a little unpopular sometimes.” 

Tens of millions of Americans suffer age-related losses in at least one of their senses, according to a recent University of Chicago study. Such changes can make everyday pleasures feel flat while increasing the risk of other health issues, such as poor nutrition, falling, depression or dementia.



Hearing

A lifetime of noise — power tools, a loud workplace, that Who concert — along with normal aging can cause deterioration. The tiny hair cells in your ears that send signals to your brain don’t regenerate, notes Frank Lin, associate professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Your brain shrinks as you age, but hearing loss can accelerate this shrinking, which can more than double the risk of dementia. You’re also more likely to suffer falls. “Balance gets thrown off when you can’t hear your footsteps,” Lin says. Hearing loss also increases your odds for depression and loneliness

What you can do: 

  • Wear foam earplugs or ear-protecting headphones around loud sounds. 
  • Watch your weight, blood sugar level and blood pressure to keep the tiny arteries that fuel hair cells in your ears healthy. 
  • Visit the AARP Hearing Resource Center for more information. 
  • Use hearing aids or devices to amplify the sound of your phone or TV. In a 2016 study at Columbia University in New York, hearing aid users scored better than nonusers on cognitive and memory tests.

Sight

Focusing up close gets more difficult as the eye’s crystal-clear lens stiffens and muscle fibers that control it weaken. You may need more light for reading due to lens and pupil changes. 

Rates of macular degeneration and glaucoma double between ages 45 and 55, and the risk of cataracts triples.

What you can do: 

  • Regular exercise maintains blood flow to the eyes.
  • Plentiful sleep keeps eyes lubricated and helps remove irritants. 
  • If you need corrective lenses and have no signs of cataracts, you may be a candidate for refractive surgery. Meanwhile, more than 3 million Americans a year opt for vision-clearing cataract surgery, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. 
  • Another common vision problem is dry eye. As you age, your body produces fewer natural tears, which can make your eyes feel gritty and tired. Work with your eye doctor to find the best moisturizing strategy. Treating dry eye can make you feel better, reduce blurry vision and make reading and driving easier.

Taste

Are you putting more salt in your soup or sugar in your tea? Cells within your taste buds may not regenerate at the same rate as when you were younger, says researcher Nancy Rawson, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. 

Some ailments, including diabetes, upper respiratory tract infections and rheumatoid arthritis, can also affect taste sensitivity, Rawson notes. “As a result, you may use more salt and sugar, add more butter or margarine to bring out flavor, eat less fruit and vegetables, and go for more sweet or salty processed foods,” she says. 

On the plus side, if you weren’t a fan of strong-tasting veggies like broccoli, cabbage and arugula when you were younger, try them again. “The flavor may be less intense now,” Rawson says. “That could open doors to a lot of healthy new foods.” 

What you can do:

  • Take care of treatable health conditions such as high blood sugar, infections and inflammatory bowel disease. 
  • If your mouth is dry, talk to your doctor. Hundreds of medications can cause lack of saliva, including drugs for allergies, anxiety, pain and depression. Switching prescriptions, avoiding alcohol-based mouthwashes and using a mouth moisturizer may help.
  • “Go for more complex and intense flavors,” suggests registered dietitian Jacqueline B. Marcus of Highland Park, Ill. Add garlic, onion, flavored vinegars, sharp cheese, sautéed mushrooms, tomato paste or sun-dried tomatoes to your cooking. 
  • Pump up sweet and salty flavors in a healthy way: Sprinkle a little sugar on sliced fruit or a little sea salt on vegetables. “This gives the illusion that the fruit is sweeter and the vegetables are saltier,” she says. 
Save your senses

PHOTOS BY ERIN PATRICE O'BRIEN

Tens of millions of Americans suffer age-related losses in their senses, according to a recent study.

Smell

Every aroma is processed by a patch of nerve endings, about the size of a postage stamp, that are high in your nose. These nerve endings wear out and may even die off with age. “Odor signals travel directly to some of the oldest parts of your brain, including to areas connected to memory and emotions,” says Jayant M. Pinto, an otolaryngologist and associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago. “Christmas cookies or Grandma’s brisket recipe may not trigger cherished memories if you can’t smell them. Smell and taste are closely linked, so food may not be as enjoyable. And you may not notice if leftovers have spoiled.” 

Twenty percent of those 70 and older in one recent study couldn’t detect the smell of smoke, and 31 percent didn’t notice the smell of natural gas. 

What you can do: 

  • People who exercise regularly and do not drink excessively are less likely to suffer from loss of smell, according to a 2016 National Institutes of Health study. 
  • Avoid strong fumes from cleaning products and other chemicals.
  • “Smell training seems to help 30 to 40 percent of people improve their ability to detect odors,” Pinto says. “Spend a few minutes a day gently sniffing familiar aromas, such as lemon, clove, eucalyptus and rose.”

Touch

About 30 percent of people in their 50s say their sense of touch isn’t what it used to be; another 30 percent say it’s downright poor. Normal brain aging and the gradual loss of touch-sensing receptors in skin may explain the problem. 

Your ability to detect pain, heat and cold weakens as your sense of touch declines. “And aging can affect sensors in joints, muscles and tendons, as well as skin, that give your brain important information about where your body is in space. As a result, you may feel unsteady or clumsy,” says Winnie Dunn, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy Education at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. 

What you can do:

  • “It’s no secret formula,” Dunn says. “If you like to dance, then dance. If you like to walk, walk. If you like to play tennis, continue to do that or other similar activities. The more your body has the experience of moving in space, the more those receptors will stay active and useful.”
  • Wearing body-hugging clothing also stimulates touch receptors, Dunn says.  
  • Be generous with physical affection — hug your spouse, kiss your grandkids, and ask them to reciprocate. Pet the dog. Schedule a massage. Touch boosts well-being and helps you feel in tune with the people around you.

Amy Paturel is a health and science writer who lives in California.

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