How to Protect our Senses

Each of our senses can be affected as we age. So what can we do to protect them? 

Sight 

Did you know that the pupil in the eye shrinks by up to a third by the time we reach 60? This is why we need that extra light on to read. Another common condition is presbyopia or long sight, affecting most of us from our forties onwards. This is inflexibility of the eye muscles so we can no longer focus close up. 

Regular eye examinations will help us preserve our sight and expose any potential problems. We can help ourselves further by acting on research into three age related eye conditions: 

  • Cataracts (clouding of the lens).
  • Glaucoma (increased pressure within the eyeball, causing gradual loss of sight).
  • Macular degeneration, which affects the part of the retina responsible for converting light into signals to be read by the brain. 

Cataracts: Getting older is the most common cause of cataracts according to the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind). Other causes include diabetes and trauma which may be avoidable. The RNIB advise that research is underway to identify if the following preventable lifestyle factors might be involved in cataract development: 

  • tobacco smoking
  • lifelong exposure to sunlight
  • having a poor diet lacking antioxidant vitamins. 

As we know that smoking, excessive exposure to sunlight and poor diet all increase health risks, these seem worth avoiding. 

Glaucoma: Exercise may reduce the risk of glaucoma, by reducing pressure within the eyeball. That’s according to a 2012 review of different research in this field. Currently, there is no significant evidence that eye exercises improve vision since they cannot alter the shape of the eye. 

Macular Degeneration: A study on ways of preventing age related macular degeneration, published in 2011, suggests the following may be protective 

  • A healthy diet including dark leafy green vegetables
  • Stopping smoking
  • Sunglasses 

The NHS reports that Vitamins A , C and E – as well as substances called lutein and zeaxanthin – may slow the progression of one kind of macular degeneration and possibly even reduce your risk of getting the other kind.

Foods high in vitamins A, C and E include: oranges, kiwis, leafy green vegetables, tomatoes and carrots. Leafy green vegetables, peas, mangoes and sweetcorn are good sources of lutein. More research is needed to be sure these foods will help but this type of diet is recommended because it also has other important health benefits.

Hearing 

As we age, the structures inside the ear and related neural pathways start to deteriorate so we lose the ability to hear higher frequencies. Over exposure to loud noise for many years can cause damage including tinnitus – the perception of sound when no actual external sound is present. Other causes include smoking and a genetic predisposition to age related hearing loss 

Hearing loss can make us feel isolated. It is also a threat to safety if, for example, we can no longer hear a smoke alarm. But there is action we can take to delay or offset this loss. 

If our hearing does deteriorate technology continues to develop smaller more effective hearing aids that we can wear continuously and unobtrusively to avoid feeling out of touch. 

Smell - This is a topic covered more fully elsewhere on this site. 

Touch is also covered in a separate article. 

Taste - As we age, we lose the number of taste buds in the mouth and those that remain lose mass, so older people often find they need more concentrated flavours to stimulate taste buds and appetite. Poor appetite can lead to poor nutrition which can adversely affect our health. 

To protect our sense of taste it can help to: 

  • Stop smoking (according to a 2008 study of 1312 participants in Germany)
  • Ensure good dental hygiene (brushing and flossing teeth)
  • Eat food containing zinc (like oysters, meat and baked beans) - which may help protect our ability to taste salt flavours, according to a European study published in 2008. 

The loss in taste is usually preceded by a reduction in the ability to smell. In fact taste and smell are interconnected. Flavour is sensed high up in the nose. That’s why food tends to taste less flavoursome when we have a cold and our nose is blocked. 

So action to improve our sense of smell is likely to help our sense of taste as well. 

Conclusions 

To help protect our senses we should:

  • Follow a healthy lifestyle – avoid smoking, take exercise and eat a healthy diet 
  • Ensure a healthy environment – wear sunglasses when needed and limit exposure to very loud noise
  • Be alert to any marked or sudden change in our senses and seek medical advice promptly

 

To return to Ageing and senses click here.

Rachel Laughton-Scott September 2013, Reviewed and updated by Emma Juhasz February 2017. Next review date December 2019 

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Advice for taste and smell disorders