You already know that your body changes as you age, and your senses are no exception to the rule. Whether it’s from too many loud concerts as a teenager or too many hours staring at book pages, changes to your hearing, sight, smell, taste or touch are often just a part of life for many older adults. But according to a new study published this week, these changes are more common than many medical professional realized and may be connected to each other in ways researchers hadn’t previously thought.
How are our senses related to health?
Being a little hard of hearing or needing to upgrade your glasses prescription may not seem like a major health issue, but past research has shown that changes in the senses of older people can be associated with serious problems. For example, having worse vision has been associated with depression, thinking difficulties, lower quality of life and even higher rates of death. Studies have shown that hearing loss, another common problem in older adults, can be related to being in worse physical shape, thinking issues and an increased risk of death. Finally, a study performed last year by author of this paper showed that losing your sense of smell might be a warning sign for an increased risk of death.
Why does sensory loss have these negative effects on health?
Our senses serve as our connection to the world and are vital to many of the things we do on a day to day basis. Driving, for example, requires good sight and losing your vision can mean losing the ability to drive. That, in turn, can prevent you from visiting friends, going to parks and getting your own groceries, all of which can have significant impacts on your health. Smell is a key sense needed to taste food and losing it can take the joy out of eating. Those who have lost their smell are often less likely to eat healthy foods or to eat at all because they can’t really taste their foods anymore and because old favorites might not be as palatable. That can lead to poor diet, malnutrition and other health problems.
But researchers think there may be more to sensory loss than just the daily abilities you lose as they disappear. Being able to sense the world relies on the health of your brain and your nerves, which might mean that losing senses reflects a change in how healthy these parts of your body are. This research team wanted to get a bigger picture of how many older adults suffer from the loss of how many senses and wanted to use that information to see if they could learn something about the biology of losing your senses.
How did the team research sensory loss?
The team used data from a study done between 2005 and 2006 where researchers interviewed more than 3000 older adults between 57 and 85. They asked them a variety of questions that included assessing how good their senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing were. The researchers analyzed this data to see which senses most adults were missing and how often those missing senses were associated with other sensory issues.
What did the team find?
The researchers found that sensory loss is extremely common in older adults. In their data set, about 94% of all older adults surveyed (about 19 out of every 20) had some sort of sensory problem and about two thirds of them reported that this sensory problem was substantial. Two out of three had two or more senses affected in some way. The data also showed that the loss of senses were correlated with each other, meaning having problems with one sense, like your smell, made you more likely to have problems with another, like your vision. The researchers think this shows that there’s an underlying, biological process that may be leading to multiple sensory problems as you get older, perhaps because the brain and nervous system aren’t working as well.
What does this mean for me?
This study shows that it’s not uncommon to have sensory problems as you get older and that one issue often indicates another may be lurking somewhere else. If you’re an older adult and you’ve been having unprovoked problems with your sense of taste, smell, touch, sight or hearing, you should see a doctor and get assessed. Getting medical advice can pick up on underlying health issues that might be causing these problems and nip any medical problems in the bud. On top of that, medical professionals can help you adapt to these changes in your senses so that they don’t hamper your ability to live your life. There are many doctors and therapists with expertise in adapting your diet, home, car and other daily essentials so that you can stay safe and healthy in spite of the sensory changes that come with age.