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Understanding Sensory Changes as we Age

 

The way we perceive the world around us depends on our sensations and perceptions of our environment. Sensation occurs when the body takes in information through different receptors. That information is then processed by the brain and becomes our perception of the world (Myers 116-117). As our bodies age our sensations and thus our perceptions of the world around us change as well. For a person’s body to receive information, a certain amount of stimulation, a threshold, must be reached. As a person ages, this threshold becomes higher meaning more stimulation is necessary for sensations to consciously occur (“Aging,” MedlinePlus). The following sections will give a brief description of some of the changes that occur.

 

Vision

Changes in vision go beyond the need for corrective lenses to give us 20/20 vision.  As we age, we also begin to experience decreased peripheral vision (Fukuda), difficulty adapting to changes in lighting (“Aging,” MedlinePlus), and decreased perception of color (“Aging,” MedlinePlus).

To adapt to changes in lighting, the pupil either contracts or expands. This process allows enough light into the eye for the person to see properly.  As a person ages, their pupils begin to react slower, making them less able to adapt to abrupt changes in lighting (“Aging,” MedlinePlus). This can also lead to an increased sensitivity to glare (“The Aging,” ShareCare).

Additionally, as people age the lens in the eye slowly begins to yellow.  This can affect the perception of colors, making it harder to differentiate between blues, greens, and purples and making it harder to notice the contrasts between colors (“The Aging,” ShareCare).  In order to help your loved one, you should use warm colors with strong contrasts such as red and yellow (“The Aging,” ShareCare).  In fact, placing a red light in hallways at night will help your loved one navigate with greater ease (“Aging,” MedlinePlus).

 

Hearing

Hearing loss is common among older adults.  Age-related hearing loss is known as presbycusis and typically worsens over time.  Common effects of this are difficulty hearing high pitched noises and difficulty listening in loud environments (“Definition”).  “Presbyucisis affects a third of people between 65 and 75 years of age and half of people over 75” (“Definition”).

 

Taste/Smell

Taste and smell work together because our body contains a pathway that links the roof of the throat to the nose (“Problems With Smell”).  Together, these two senses create what is known as flavor (“Problems With Taste”).  As the body ages a slow decrease in the sense of smell, otherwise known as presbyosmia, occurs (“Problems With Smell”).  This decrease in the sense of smell can cause food to lose flavor.  Another reason for diminished flavor can be the loss of taste buds.  As the body ages, the number of taste buds present may decrease (“Problems With Taste”). To encourage eating, you may provide your loved one with colorful or textured foods (Fukuda).

 

Touch

The human body has receptors which transmit different sensations to the brain.  As we age, these sensations may be diminished due to lack of blood flow or other issues and may result in decreased sensitivity to temperature, touch, and pressure.  This can lead to an inability to distinguish between different temperatures such as warm and hot and make your loved one more likely to burn themselves.  They may also become less aware of pain making certain injuries more likely to go unnoticed.  Since these receptors also give an individual information about their body’s position, an elder often becomes more prone to falls (“Aging,” MedlinePlus). To keep your loved one safe, make sure you check the temperature of food you provide and the temperature of their rooms (Fukuda). You should also try to decrease obstacles and clutter in the house in order to allow them to move around with ease.