Just as with so many other diseases and health conditions, the risk of getting them rises substantially with age. Forget smoking and pollution: the number one factor driving health outcomes for people in the West is the number of years they’ve been on planet Earth.
Loss of the senses is highly correlated with aging. The World Health Organization, for instance, estimates that more than 82 percent of people living with blindness are over the age of 50. Disabling hearing loss rises from 1 percent under the age of 45 to over 8.5 percent by the age of 55. And people typically begin to lose their sense of taste around age 65, though this varies.
So what’s driving all this?
Partly it has to do with people’s physical and social health. Physical changes occur in the sense organs as people get older, which causes them to lose function. Whether it is due to general “wear and tear” or something else remains a matter of debate. But there’s no denying that as people get older, their senses do not work as well as they used to.
Eyes are a focus for aging science because of how clearly they display the hallmarks. The whites of the eyes, for instance, often called “sclera” often go from white to yellow. This happens because of exposure to ultraviolet light. UV from the sun actually damages the tissues on the surface of the eyes, making them appear more yellow than they did when a person was young.
Visual signs of aging, though, are only the start. Aging can occur and lead to a host of additional conditions. Macular degeneration, for instance, happens when the oval-shaped section of the retina at the back of the eye becomes damaged. Cataracts are another issue which involves clouding of the eye’s lens, usually to do with the breakdown of lens proteins.
Glaucoma is another condition that strikes more often in older people. Typically, it involves damage to the optic nerve which reduces a person’s peripheral vision.
All of these conditions relate to the length of time we are here on the planet. Eventually, the body begins to break down.
It’s a similar story for ear aging. Like eye aging, it tends to accelerate the older we get.
The most common problem people experience is excessive earwax buildup. The purpose of earwax is to remove foreign particles from the ear canal and keep it clean. Small glands in the ear canal secrete wax as it slowly moves to the ear opening. Once there, it dries and flakes off harmlessly. But sometimes, too much earwax can build up, and this can lead to chronic compaction issues that harm hearing. Patients must continually return to the clinic for earwax cleaning.
Ears can age in another way: stiffening of the eardrum. The eardrum is made of tissue just like any other part of the body. So as the body ages, it does too. Like tissues in the eye, it becomes stiffer with time. Proteins begin to break down, preventing it from transmitting sounds to the inner ear.
The tiny sound-sensing hairs in the cochlear are also prone to damage from both aging and the environment. These hairs determine the strength of the signal sent via the auditory nerve to the brain. But if they are not functional, then any nerve impulse following a sound will be weak.
Besides aging, the biggest cause of hearing loss is listening to loud noises. So, do you need hearing protection? The answer is yes. Hearing protection can delay hearing loss and, in some cases, prevent it altogether.
Lastly, aging can also contribute to auditory processing conditions in older people. In these disorders, the machinery of the ear is intact, but the patient’s brain can no longer accurately interpret the signals coming their way. Thus, sounds appear muted or distorted.
The Problems Of Sense Loss
Losing the ability to use your senses imposes a direct burden on peoples’ lives. But there are all sorts of other costs associated with it that can cause further problems.
For instance, losing your sense of hearing can make you less likely to want to engage in social interactions. If you’re having to focus intently on the person you’re talking to, just to understand what they’re saying, then you may be more inclined to isolate yourself. Over time, isolation can lead to secondary complications, such as depression.
Vision loss can also inhibit a person’s ability to communicate with others and makes it less likely that they can live independently. Again, society must shuttle resources in their direction.
What Can We Do To Prevent Sense Loss?
Preventing sense loss requires us to adopt new lifestyles. But what specifically works?
- Avoid drinking too much: excessive alcohol consumption is a leading cause of taste loss
- Steer clear of strong fumes such as cleaning products and chemicals. These may damage sense receptors in the nose
- Only use small amounts of salt and sugar
- Exercise regularly to keep blood flowing to your eye
- If you have dry eyes, apply lubricant regularly
- Wear ear plugs and ear muffs if you know you are going to be exposed to a lot of loud noise
- Keep your weight and blood pressure down to protect the delicate blood vessels supplying the ears
- Use a hearing aid or amplifying devices if you have active hearing loss. Auditory stimulation may slow the rate at which the disease progresses
- Get plenty of sleep and avoid too much blue or bright light from your devices
- Find healthy ways to make your food tasty, such as adding herbs, spices, onion or vinegars
If people have active sense loss, there are many ways that they can manage it. Usually, correct management requires the help of a professional, such as an audiologist or optometrist. These individuals can measure your sense loss and then track your progress with treatment. In general, identifying issues early allows for more effective treatment later on, helping to improve quality of life.