Several Senses Decrease As We Age

Patient Expert

Aging brings many changes to the body and to many of our senses. Recently, I wrote about the changes in vision that most women (and men) experience as they reach middle-age. There are other changes coming down the pike as well to some of your senses. While not part of the menopausal transition, I wanted to go on and address these since they are part of the aging process.

A Not-So-Tasty Subject

Take, for instance, taste and smell. MedlinePlus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, reports that these two senses work together since most tastes come from odors. These two senses are important both in the enjoyment of life, but also in helping you identify danger, such as spoiled food and leaking gas.

While in your prime, you have approximately 9,000 taste buds; however, as you age, the number of taste buds you have declines while the remaining taste buds begin to shrink. Furthermore, you also begin to lose sensitivity to the four tastes after the age of 60, starting with salty and sweet tastes. Additionally, the amount of saliva produced decreases, causing dry mouth that can affect the sense of taste.

Add on top of these changes the reality that the sense of smell often diminishes as we age. This is believed to be cause d by the loss of nerve endings in the nose as well as the decreased amount of mucus being produced. The Wall Street Journal reported that about 50 percent of people have a reduced ability to smell by the time they reach 60 while about 75 percent experience difficulties by the age of 80.

MedlinePlus notes that smoking can increase the speed of when you lose taste and smell. The Wall Street Journal also stated that upper respiratory infections, pollution, head trauma and diseases such as diabetes can alter your sense of smell.

So how can you tell if your senses of smell and taste are going? Dr. Alan Hirsch, the director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal about two easy assessments:

  • With eyes closed, separately taste vanilla ice cream and chocolate ice cream. You should be able to discern a difference.
  • Hold a cotton pad soaked in rubbing alcohol under your chin. If you can smell it, your sense of smell is probably fine.

If you're experiencing a loss of these senses, talk to your doctor to see if medications may be causing your problem. You also can alter the way you prepare foods by using different spices that will offer new scents and tastes.

What Did You Say?

Hearing also takes a hit as we age. Medline Plus reports that structure inside the ear begin to change as we age. Furthermore, the ears' ability to pick up on different sounds decreases. There are several types of hearing issues that can prove problematic as we age. These include:

  • Presbycusis, which is age-related hearing loss in both ears. You may experience a decline in the ability to hear high-frequency sounds and also have trouble telling apart certain sounds. Background noise can wreak havoc in being able to understand when someone is speaking.
  • Tinnitus, which is a persistent and abnormal noise heard by the ears. This condition can be caused by wax buildup as well as medicines that harm the structures inside the ear.
  • Impacted ear wax, which can make hearing difficult.

If you experience symptoms of any of these issues, talk to your doctor to find out what can be done.

And because the ears are important in maintaining balance, these changes due to aging can result in difficulty keeping your balance while sitting, standing and walking. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a balance disorder can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection in the ear or blood circulation disorders that affect the inner ear or brain. A head injury also can cause a balance disorder. Because there are a variety of balance disorders, please talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any issues, such as dizziness, lightheadedness, blurred vision, a feeling of falling, confusion or disorientation.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Byron, E. (2013). Uncork the nose's secret powers. The Wall Street Journal.

Medline Plus. (2012). Aging changes in the senses.

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. (2009). Balance disorders.