In a study investigating how all five of our senses – hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch – decline as we age, researchers at the University of Chicago discovered a link between sensory loss and poor health.
The researchers conducted home interviews among 3005 adults between the ages of 57 and 85. They checked participants’ abilities to hear, see, smell, touch and taste.
They found that 94 per cent of the group had at least one sensory deficit. Thirty-eight per cent had deficits in two senses, and 28 per cent – more than one in four people – were experiencing difficulties with three, four, or all five senses.
They also assessed the participants’ mobility, health behaviour, chronic diseases, cognitive function (the ability to think and make decisions), and BMI (body-mass index, a measure for obesity that compares your height to your weight). Five years later, the researchers reassessed the participants who were still alive to measure their:
- degree of difficulty performing eight key daily activities, including bathing, feeding and shopping for themselves; doing light housekeeping; and managing their own finances
- physical activity, measured with a fitness tracking device used for research purposes
- mental health status
- overall health.
It might not surprise anyone that your hearing and vision are not as good at 50 as they were when you were younger, but other senses suffered even more.
Researchers found that 74 per cent of the participants had significantly lost some of their sense of taste. Two-thirds of the participants scored below normal on tests of touch. The sense of smell, which is linked to taste, also declined in about a quarter of people.
A sense of smell and taste may decline for a variety of different reasons. With age, the number of our taste buds declines and those that remain shrink. A sense of taste can also decline when saliva production diminishes. A loss in the number of nerve endings in the nose can affect your sense of smell.
Whatever the cause, a loss of smell and taste can be hazardous to your health. Being unable to notice when food has spoiled can increase the risk of food poisoning, for example. Losing your sense of smell and taste can also lead to eating less, which can set you on the path to malnutrition.
While some sensory loss is expected with age, what the research explains is that it is important to be alert to trouble and to tell your GP about any changes in your senses, so that impairment can be managed or corrected.
Your doctor can also rule out any underlying condition, such as diabetes, that may be causing the change. Medications can cause some sensory loss, too, so the fix may be as simple as changing a prescription.
Researchers concluded that older adults with multiple sensory losses should be closely monitored because they are at higher risk for poor health. They also suggested that monitoring at-risk older adults sooner could help prevent problems such as cognitive impairment.