Over 60

Sensory Decline

It is NOT always inevitable.

The senses - how to delay, or compensate for, their decline

Many simply assume that their senses just get worse as they get older. It's inevitable they think. Whether it's fading hearing, dimming vision, or maybe they can't quite taste their food quite like they once could, it's all just part and parcel of getting older. At least that's what they believe. Granted, some loss in sensitivity is inevitable, but it's important not to simply assume that there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Sometimes it's simply the assumption that it's inevitable that proves to be the biggest problem.
Be proactive
If you think it's inevitable, why show initiative? Yes, attitude has a lot to do with slowing the decay of your amazing senses, or maybe even stopping the degeneration in some cases. Someone whose already decided their car is a write-off is far less likely to look after it. They don't stop to ask why others with the same car and same mileage just keep going. It's largely about maintenance, and you're only going to maintain it if you feel it's worth your effort. It's the same with your senses. Attitude has its part to play

Hearing

Take your incredible sense of hearing. There are things you can do to slow down hearing loss. It can be as simple as avoiding loud noises. Also avoiding smoking! Researchers in Belgium discovered a link between hearing loss and smoking which seems to result from the fact that smoking impedes the flow of blood around the body including the inner ear, thus impairing its function.
Avoid loud noises
This will contribute to keeping your hearing in good working order. It sounds obvious, but people often get swept up in the moment, listening to their favourite rock group through headphones and turning up the volume way too loud, or maybe watching some live performance of that band they've always wanted to see. In the excitement of the moment they can quickly sacrifice what ought to be common sense and expose the ears to a massive sensory overload. Your ears are truly incredible fine precision instruments. As sound waves travel through the air, the vibration minutely impinges on the the eardrum causing the movement of 3 tiny anvil-like bones (ossicles), to cause a further motion in the inner ear that instigates tiny cell-like 'cilia' to move this way and that, releasing electro-chemical reactions you perceive as sound. Your eardrum can detect a movement the thickness of a hydrogen atom!

This is a massive oversimplification, but it perhaps illustrates the delicate nature of these fine precision instruments called your ears. By deliberately doing your best to look after them, avoiding excessive noise and smoking, you will at least go some way to holding hearing loss at bay.

Fading vision

The most common form of sight degeneration in the over 60s is known as macular degeneration (AMD), which is the gradual decay of the macular, a tiny part of the retina responsible for central vision. The most common form is so called dry macular when light sensitive cells slowly decay. In the past it has been largely regarded as inevitable that such decay is just a part of getting older, but recent research suggests the intake of certain nutrients can help to control the disease. The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary published a paper which shows people who regularly take in foods rich in carotenoids, such as is found in dark leafy greens like spinach, cabbage and collard greens, have as much as 43 percent lower risk of developing macular degeneration than those who rarely eat these natural foods. Raw spinach was found to be particularly effective.

Cut out smoking too. It was found that smokers are 4 times more likely to experience AMD than nonsmokers. Also, remember that as we get older it may get more difficult for your body to obtain all the nutrients from your diet alone, so it may be a good idea to supplement your diet with vitamin supplements. Also avoiding prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays will go some way to slow down age related visionary impairment.
A healthy diet may protect your eyes
As a general rule of thumb, a healthy diet ought to consist of plenty of fresh, colourful fruits and vegetables. Some experts suggest that we ought to be consuming between 5 and 9 helpings per day to ward off the effects or at least slow down the effects of ageing on the senses and to enjoy other benefits too. Dark green or brightly coloured vegetables rich in antioxidants are thought to be the most effective. Omega 3 fatty acids are also known to have beneficial effects on vision, so eat plenty of foods like grilled salmon. In a study throughout Europe published in 2008, people who ate oily fish at least once a week were 50 percent less likely to develop macular degeneration compared to those who ate fish less than once a week. So watch what you eat.
Posterior Vitreous Separation
When we are young the fluid in our eyes is in the form of a jelly. This contains impurities but our brains compensate for this and ignores them. As we age, however, this jelly turns, slowly, into a liquid. Some of it still sticks to the retina for a while, and as the liquified jelly moves it can tug at the retina, causing us to see flashes of light. This is usually harmless but in a minority of cases it can cause tearing of the retina, which is very serious. If you ever have these syptoms it is important to visit your local eye hospital without delay, so that they can keep an eye on it (sorry, no joke intended!). You will usually see 'floaters' (dark spots floating through your field of vision) afterwards, too, although, again, your brain will partly compensate by trying to ignore them.
weakened eye muscles
Muscles which control the ability of our eyes to focus deteriorate with age. There is not a lot we can do about this at present; complex operations involving the insertion of soft membranes around the eyes exist but are controversial and of unproven value (but of high risk). Investing in multi-focus spectacles is usually the most satisfactory option. So-called 'Laser Eye Surgery' (which alters the shape of the eyeball) is useless in this case, since it can actally make the eye less, rather than more, flexible, and it greatly increases the risk of retina tearing during posterior vitreous separations.
Cataracts
This clouding of the lenses is very common and irreversible. However, operations to replace the lenses are fast, effective and reasonably safe. They can often correct troublesome short or long-sightendess too (although not problems of focussing, or retinal damage). NHS waiting lists can be extensive but private operations should cost no more than £1500 to £2,000 per eye. A long-term diet which is high in Vitamin C, or the use of Vitamin C supplements, is claimed to help prevent it occurring, as well as avoiding bright lights, particularly sunlight; photochromic lenses (which darken automatically in bright sunlight) in spectacles may help too.

Taste

One of the great pleasures of life is the taste of good food. From sweet and luscious fruits to exotic spices, the variety is seemingly endless.
How we taste
Your tongue has around 10,000 taste buds as an adult, but in time, like the other senses, their receptivity may diminish. This not only takes away from your quality of life, but could also impact on your health as you become increasingly unable to sense when you've over salted your food for example. The same could be said for sugar. Those tiny bumps dappled all over your tongue, the roof of your mouth and throat are called papillae and each one has up to 700 taste buds neatly packed away in them. Each of those tiny taste buds contains between 50 to 80 specialised taste-receptor cells. Simply put, what we experience as taste in all its variety results in a combination of nuanced flavours: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savoury), each one having its own taste receptor that is activated when it comes into contact with that particular chemical or taste as we experience it. This chemical reaction sets off a highly complex electro chemical chain reaction which results in the sensation of taste.

This, again, is an over simplification of gargantuan proportions, and its complexity is only hinted at here, but it perhaps helps us appreciate how this finely tuned system might go wrong.
How taste buds can be damaged
If you're experiencing a lack of sensitivity when it comes to the sense of taste, don't simply assume it's just because you're getting older. Certain medications can impair taste bud performance, so if you're on medication of any kind, check with your doctor the possibility that it's contributing to it. Also, and it comes up time and again when it comes to keeping your senses in good working order, stop smoking. Many people over 60 who have quit the habit have reported an improvement in their ability to taste. There's always a good reason to quit the smoking habit.
Avoid artififial flavoues
The problem with many of us is that we have, over a lifetime, exposed our taste buds to a massive overload of not so very subtle manmade processed flavours. It gets to the point where your taste buds simply can't pick up the subtle nuances present in natural foods, and so we long for the stimulation of more exciting processed flavours which are obviously not so good for us. Weaning yourself off those manmade flavours and opting for the more subtle flavours present in vegetables and the like will not be easy at first. But in maybe just a few weeks, you may notice a difference in your ability to discern more tastes that you hadn't experienced before. It won't be long until you are enjoying the taste of healthy foods you could barely taste a short while ago!

Smell

The same can be said about the sense of smell. Only when it's not quite working the way it should do we suddenly realise how much it enhances the quality of life. Again, some damage is inevitable as we age, but don't just assume a loss of sensitivity in the ability to smell is an inevitable part of ageing. It's possible that medication you're on may be causing it, so consult your doctor. Once again, smoking can seriously diminish your ability to smell. It could be a sinus or even dental problem that can be dealt with relatively easily. Your doctor could refer you to an allergist, an ear, nose and throat specialist, or maybe a neurologist. It's not necessarily just a part of getting older. It could just be a matter of improving your nasal hygiene as well.

Touch

We have nerve endings (touch receptors) all over the surfaces of our bodies. Generally speaking, the more receptors there are in a given area, the more sensitive that area is to touch, temperature change or pain. Unfortunately these tend to decline as we get older as the nerve endings die. Some chemotherapy treatments or other medications can accelerate this process. In the absense of these, the usual cause is lack of adequate blood flow, and subsequent oxygenation, to the nerves, and this in turn can be caused by poor blood circulation. Avoiding smoking (yet again!) can slow down this process, as well as improving overall fitness; plenty of exercise, keeping up with niacin and vitamin B12 foods, such as dairy products, fish and poultry can help.

Sudden losses of touch sensitivity can be caused by more serious conditions, such as a brain tumour or stroke; these are medical emergencies, and must be treated as such.

Conclusions

So don't simply assume that fading vision, loss of hearing, or a diminished sense of taste and smell are just part and parcel of ageing. Things aren't quite so simple. While some deterioration is inevitable, thankfully there are things you can do to take control so you can continue to make the most of your amazing senses even into advanced years.

Further reading

There's a lot more information about the senses at MedlinePlus
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