What's the First to Go?

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Feb 21, 2011 2:01 PM
As much as we try to fight it, we just can't stop the aging process. Some of us may already see it slowly starting to happen: the little grey hairs peeping out from our scalp (and other hairs appearing in places where we may never have seen them before) and those stubborn little wrinkles sneakily stretching across our faces. While the changes on the outside may be obvious, what happens on the inside as we age may not be so easy to see.

"As people get older, they become more dissimilar. So physiologically, if I meet a 20-year-old person, they're pretty much the same (as other 20-year-olds). But the older people get, the more unique they become," says Dr. Anne Sclater, a professor in the faculty of medicine at Memorial University who specializes in geriatric and internal medicine. Aging sets in differently for each individual, but as Dr. Sclater explains, the process can be comparable by looking at how our senses change with age.

Blinded by the Light
Grandpa is reading the newspaper with his arms held way out in front of his face and you find yourself wondering again how in the world he can read in such a position. As we get older, generally starting around age 50, the pupil gets smaller and the lens of the eye becomes less elastic, making it harder to focus on close objects (a condition known as presbyopia). Therefore, older persons will find that holding reading material at a distance produces sharper focus.

Also, because less light reaches the retina, older people may find it harder to see at night and distinguish between dark colours. That's why many seniors need more light in order to see clearly. In fact, according to a study by Oklahoma State University (OSU), "a person aged 65 or older needs twice as much light as does a 20-year-old."

Certain diseases of the eye such as cataracts, macular degeneration (deterioration of nerve cells within the retina) and glaucoma (optic nerve damage often associated with pressure buildup within the eye) are also more common within the older population. "I'd say older people should see an eye doctor once a year just to have their eye pressure checked because glaucoma is so common and it's the sneak in the night, because the pressure can build up suddenly without warning," says Dr. Sclater.

Those with cloudy vision may also find that they're more sensitive to glare. While fluorescent and incandescent bulbs can help, if you like to leave a night light on in the hallway, a red light may be a better choice as it produces even less glare.

Do You Hear What I Hear?
Have you ever asked your husband to take out the trash, only to return to the living room 15 minutes later to find him still sitting on the couch? Well, you may want to cut hubby some slack, because there is a chance that he might never have heard you in the first place. In fact, several studies suggest that as they age, men find it harder to hear higher frequencies than women do.

"If you've been married 50 years and you think you're husband has selective hearing loss, maybe you have to lower your voice for him to hear you," says Dr. Sclater.

As we age, we may also find it more difficult to distinguish between certain consonants such as f, s, t and z. "So 'dead' might sound like 'bed,' or 'Clark' might sound like 'park,'" explains Dr. Sclater.

Many factors contribute to hearing loss, including long-term exposure to loud noise, ear infections, wax buildup and certain medications, just to name a few. Age-related hearing loss is called presbycusis and is believed to be brought on by changes in the inner ear like a decrease in the eardrum's elasticity or in the hair cells that help carry along sound impulses.

"A significant number of older people have a diminished sense of hearing, and it can happen so gradually that people don't even know it, very similar to vision. The important thing is, as you age, to have your hearing and vision tested periodically," says Dr. Sclater. "I have seen people who are losing their hearing, and people misinterpret it for early Alzheimer's. When you're assessing a patient for dementia, a lot of the way you assess them is based on asking questions and (the patient) hearing them and performing a task. So it's always good to have your hearing checked."

The Spice of Life
If you've ever given Grandma trouble for adding extra salt and seasoning to a special dish that you spent hours slaving away in the kitchen to prepare just for her, stop whining. As it turns out, she (probably) doesn't really think your cooking is that horrible after all. Several studies suggest that as we get older, our tastebuds (usually those located at the sides and roof of the mouth) decrease.

"People still have a sense of sweet and sour and bitter and salty, but mostly when they're concentrated. The sense is that older people might add a large amount of salt to get more flavour," says Dr. Sclater. Certain medications and a deficiency in zinc or vitamin A can also interfere with the sense of taste. "And then the other thing about taste - and it goes back to routine health maintenance, kind of like getting your car into Canadian Tire - is how people tend not to pursue seeing their dentist. So if your teeth and your gums and your mouth are in a poor state, and you've got mild gingivitis or tooth decay, that can also lead to problems with taste. So cleaning and flossing can improve certain tastes," adds Dr. Sclater.

Like taste, older people may also have a diminished sense of smell, and some may actually experience weight loss simply because they can't savour food like they used to. Afterall, if you can't enjoy the aroma or flavour of that lovely pot roast, why bother eating it? Certain medications, diseases like Alzheimer's, and nerve damage within the nose due to colds, allergies and pollutants are all to blame for the loss of smell. Additionally, according to OSU, while "the sense of smell is thought to decline with age...poor health status or smoking may have a greater impact than aging on smell."

Reach Out and Touch Someone
Why is it that Nan can brush her arm against a hot stovetop and have little or no reaction, or keep her hands wrapped around a steaming cup of tea without pulling away? Try the same and you probably won't last long. Contrary to what you might think (while she may be pretty amazing), Nan is not Wonder Woman in disguise.
"Touch is so important. I think it's something that can go amiss for all of us," says Dr. Sclater.

While studies have shown a correlation between aging and a diminished sense of touch or a change in the way we perceive hot/cold and pressure, it's not certain if these changes are due to aging itself, or to the disorders that are more common among older people. For example, arthritis, mini-strokes and diseases like Parkinson's can all cause a diminished sense of touch.

"It's said that if you've got circulation problems, which can happen with aging, that can affect your sense of touch," adds Dr. Sclater. According to the OSU study, while we can live without sight, smell, taste or hearing, "without touch, we are at great risk of mental breakdown."

Any decline in the senses as we age interferes with our quality of life. That's why it's so important to take care of yourself and if you have any concerns or questions, don't hesitate to visit your family doctor.