You can read about the effects of ageing on sight, hearing, smell and taste elsewhere on this site in in the section Effect of Ageing on the Senses. Our fifth sense is the sense of 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 the most sensitive.
What happens to our sense of touch as we get older?
As we get older, our skin becomes thinner and less elastic and our skin touch receptors are reduced or altered. This reduces our sensitivity to pain, pressure, temperature and vibration. Poor circulation, health problems and some medications can also adversely affect our sense of touch. These changes can be significant, and we need to be careful to avoid injuries such as burns or cuts that we might not notice as immediately as we did when we were younger.
However, decline or changes in touch sensitivity can vary from one person to another and may affect some people more than others. One common example is that, although touch sensitivity lessens with age, gentle touch becomes more pleasant with age. Another common example is in people who are blind, and whose sense of touch has developed more acutely. Interestingly, according a 2015 review, 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.
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, resulting in feelings of compassion and empathy.
In a study of 404 healthy adults reported in 2014, fewer of the participants who received hugs, and who were then exposed to the cold virus, were likely to experience severe cold symptoms.
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 use touch as part of the care process, although this is less common now. This trend is possibly due to concerns about when touch is appropriate, for instance with vulnerable adults, and due to the risk of spreading COVID-19 infection.
In 2016 a review of the literature relating to older people in residential care concluded that, 'Clients perceive massage to positively influence factors such as pain, sleep, emotional status and psychosocial health'. The review also noted that massage reduced the need for restraint and medication.
Behavioural and psychological problems in older people with dementia have been shown to decrease significantly after receiving massage or touch, but these studies have been small and of low quality.
Pets can also play a therapeutic role in significantly reducing pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems, including the elderly. Visitinganimals are increasingly used by hospitals for precisely this purpose.
Dogs seem to be particularly helpful in improving interaction with others and reducing depression and loneliness in people living long-term in care homes.
Touch through activities
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 cooking, 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 of using the sense of touch for specific purposes. For example, many major world religions make use of the sense of touch through prayer beads, prayer wheels and meditation beads, and touch is central to some ancient medical systems of India and China.
This suggests the importance of maintaining our sense of touch as we get older, not least if we are largely housebound or in a care home.
- 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 try to find ways to keep touch in our lives, for instance through family, friends, pets or physical activities we enjoy that involve touch.
Reviewed and updated by Barbara Baker, December 2021. Next review date, November 2025.