Touch – the Fifth Sense
You can read about the effects of ageing on sight, hearing, smell and taste elsewhere on this site - in the section Effect of Ageing on the Senses. Our fifth sense is touch. Unlike the other senses, it is distributed all over the body.
There are four types of touch sensation: cold, heat, contact and pain. Fingertips and sexual organs have the greatest concentration of nerve endings and are therefore most sensitive.
What happens to our sense of touch as we get older
As we get older, our skin becomes thinner and less elastic. This is one factor that reduces our sensitivity to pain, temperature and vibration. Poor circulation and some medications can also adversely affect our sense of touch. These changes can be significant. So care needs to be taken to avoid injuries such as burns or cuts, that we might not notice as promptly as we did when younger.
However, this decline in touch can sometimes vary from one person to another and may be slower where, as with people who are blind, the sense of touch has been more extensively developed and used. Interestingly our ability to distinguish between rough and smooth surfaces doesn't seem to decline with age and neither does our ability to recognise objects by touch. That's the verdict of a 2015 review of the evidence.
There is another important aspect to touch:
Benefits of touch from others
Researchers have found that touch from others reduces cortisol by releasing oxytocin (the 'cuddle hormone'). This makes us feel better by lowering our blood pressure and heart rate while receiving compassion and empathy.
In a study of 404 healthy adults, reported in 2015, fewer of those who received hugs and were then exposed to the cold virus were likely to experience severe symptoms.
And researchers from Berkeley University, California found that the teams who touched each other the most, topped the national sportsleague – further confirming the value of touch.
Touch in the lives of older people
Older people who live alone can be particularly vulnerable to the loss of touch from others. The caring professions used to employ touch as part of the care process but this is less common now – possibly due to concerns as to when touch is appropriate, for instance with vulnerable adults.
However, in 2016 a review of the literature relating to older people in residential care concluded, 'Clients perceive massage to positively influence factors such as pain, sleep, emotional status and psychosocial health' and also noted it reduced the need for restraint and medication.
Without close family, pets can play a therapeutic role. Visiting animals are increasingly used by hospitals for precisely this purpose. Dogs seem to be particularly helpful here, for instance in helping manage pain and also for people with dementia living in care homes.
The Touch Research Institute recommends that opportunities for touch could include massage for older people and is currently assessing the efficacy of this practice. Much of the research uses small sample sizes but there is clearly potential for healing use in situations including post operative pain, osteoarthritis and dementia.
The developing field of haptics (the science of touch) suggests that physically touching and working with objects can also have a therapeutic effect. Activities as basic as making bread, painting a fence or gardening may have a calming effect. Anecdotally this kind of approach has proved helpful, for instance, for people with dementia. There’s also a long history here. For example most major world religions make use of the sense of touch through prayer beads.
This suggests the importance of maintaining our sense of touch as we get older, not least if we are largely housebound or in care homes.
- We need to take extra care to ensure that, as we get older, we notice burns or cuts - as our skin may be less sensitive than when we were younger
- Touch is important for our wellbeing, so we should always find ways to keep it in our lives - through family, friends, pets or physical activities we enjoy that involve touch (from making bread to gardening).
To return to Ageing and senses click here.
Rachel Laughton-Scott September 2013, Reviewed and updated by Emma Juhasz March 2017, Next review date February 2020