Age Related Sensory Changes

The sensory changes that occur with aging affect one’s vision, hearing, taste and smelling, touch, and pain sensitivity. These sensory changes alter how older adults perceive and interact with the world around them and can cause social isolation.

  For example, some have to stop driving at night from vision problems.  They feel embarrassed because they don’t hear well, so they stop engaging in conversations.  Some stop eating because food loses flavor.

The changes in vision that occur with aging involve all of the structures of the eye.  Cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration are common eye diseases that occur with aging. Vision changes due to aging include:

  • difficulty seeing objects up close
  • problems with glare and adjusting to brightness and darkness
  • difficulty telling colors apart like blue and green, floaters in line of vision due to the shrinking of vitreous in the eye
  • decreased peripheral vision
  • dry eyes causing irritation and inflammation
  • limited eye movement from weakened eye muscles. 

The auditory changes that occur with aging alter how one hears and their sense of balance.  Older adults may have a hard time hearing high frequency sounds or being able to distinguish certain sounds with background noise present.   Those experiencing hearing loss may have an easier time hearing low or soft tones.   One’s equilibrium (balance) can be affected in the aging process as well.  

Changes in taste occur as we age because of the loss of taste buds. Over time, older adults first lose the ability to taste sweet and salty, then sour and bitter tastes go away. Smell diminishes in older adults because of the loss of nerve cells in the nostrils and production of mucus that hold odors in the nose.  This can be dangerous for older adults because taste and smell alert a person if food is bad or if there is gas present in living quarters.

Older adults experience changes in touch that can be defined as being aware of pain or temperatures, body position, and feeling vibrations.  Possible reasons for this include decreased blood flow to the nerve endings in the body that send messages to the brain.   Older adults have reduced sensitivity to pain.  This can be threatening to the health of older adults because they might be injured without knowing the severity of their injury because the pain doesn’t bother them like it should.  Movements can become a problem for older adults because their body position becomes altered and they are unaware as to where their feet are in comparison to the floor while walking, this increases risk for falls and injuries such as a broken hip.  Also, not being able to decipher temperature can be dangerous to the safety of older adults.  For example, burning skin while cooking or bathing (burns can lead to infection), overdressing on a hot day (heat exhaustion), etc.