How Aging Changes the Senses

May 19, 2016

 

As we age, our senses (hearing, vision, taste, smell, touch) change, becoming less sharp, and this can make it harder for us to notice certain details. Sensory changes can affect our lifestyle, making it more difficult communicating, enjoying activities, and staying involved with people.  In some cases, sensory changes can lead to isolation.

 

Our senses receive information from our surroundings. This information can be in the form of sound, light, smells, tastes, and touch. Sensory information is then converted into nerve signals which are carried to the brain. There, the signals are turned into meaningful sensations. A certain amount of stimulation is required before you become aware of a sensation. This minimum level of sensation is called the threshold. Aging raises this threshold, increasing the need for more stimulation in order to be aware of the sensation.

 

Aging can affect all of these senses, but usually hearing and vision are most affected. Devices such as glasses and hearing aids, or lifestyle changes, can improve our ability to hear and see, and adapt to these changing senses.

 

Age-Related Hearing Loss

Our ears have two jobs. One is hearing and the other is maintaining balance. Hearing occurs after sound vibrations pass through the ear drum and middle ear to the inner ear. The vibrations are changed into nerve signals in the inner ear and are carried to the brain by the auditory nerve.

 

The second function of our ears, balance (equilibrium) is controlled in the inner ear. Fluid and small hairs in the inner ear stimulate the auditory nerve. This helps the brain maintain balance. As aging occurs, structures inside the ear start to change and their functions decline. Our ability to pick up sounds decreases. We may also have problems maintaining balance when sitting, standing, or walking.

 

Knowing How to Cope

Age-related hearing loss is called presbycusis, and it typically affects both ears. Hearing high-frequency sounds usually decline first. Most may also have trouble telling the difference between certain sounds. Or, you may have problems hearing a conversation when there is background noise. If you are having trouble hearing, discuss your symptoms with your health care provider. One way to manage hearing loss is by getting fitted with hearing aids.

 

Persistent, abnormal ear noise (tinnitus) is another common problem in older adults. Causes of tinnitus may include wax buildup or medicines that damage structures inside the ear. If you have tinnitus, ask your health care provider how to manage the condition. If you or a loved one is showing signs of age-related hearing loss don’t despair. Today’s technology offers many solutions that can help improve our ability to hear, and stay involved with people as much as possible.

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