Sensory System Changes and Impairment in Older Adults

Sensory System Changes and Impairment in Older Adults Homework Help

Aging changes the senses

As people grow old, their sense of vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste change. These senses are no longer as sharp as they used to be. This makes it harder for older people to notice details.

Sensory System Changes and Impairment in Older Adults

Sensory System Changes and Impairment in Older Adults

Sensory changes greatly affect a person’s quality of life. Once sensory changes kick in, a person may have problems staying involved with people, communicating with others, and enjoying activities they once enjoyed.

Senses help us to receive information from our surroundings. Information from our environment may be in the form of touch, light, sound, tastes, and smell. Once we receive this information, it is converted into nerve signals which are then transmitted to the brain. Once in the brain, these signals are converted into meaningful sensations.

For us to become aware of these sensations, we need a certain amount of stimulation to recognize them. The minimum level of sensation we need is known as the threshold. As we grow old, this threshold rises. This means that for us to become aware of these sensations, we need more stimulation.

Old age affects all the senses. However, sense of vision and hearing are the most affected. Changes in vision and hearing senses can be improved by using hearing aids and glasses. Lifestyle changes can help improve these chances.

  • Hearing

It is common to wonder how we can prevent hearing loss in our old age. Our sense of hearing weakens gradually as we grow old. Hearing loss is very common in old people. One in three elderly people between the ages of 65 and 74 years has hearing loss. Hearing loss is the most common sensory change linked to old age.

Hearing loss that is associated with old age is known as presbycusis.  This type of hearing loss is caused by changes in the auditory nerve or the inner ear. The auditory nerve is responsible for transmitting sound signals to the brain so that they can be processed.

There is a certain level of hearing loss that is considered normal. However, several factors can make it worse. One key factor is noise. Being repeatedly exposed to loud sounds can easily cause damage to the sensory hair cells in the ears. These sensory hair cells are important for us to hear well.

As we age, the wax in our ears also dries up. This makes it hard for the wax to fall out naturally. This dry ear wax can block the ear canal. When this happens, sound waves cannot enter the inner ear. The result is that it becomes more difficult to hear soft sounds while loud sounds become more muffled.

Our ears have 2 main jobs, to maintain balance and to hear. For us to be able to hear, sound waves need to travel across the eardrum to the inner ear. Once in the inner ear, vibrations are changed into nerve signals and then transmitted by the auditory nerve to the brain.

The inner ear is the part of the ear that controls balance also known as equilibrium. Small hair and fluid found in the inner ear stimulate the auditory nerve to help the brain maintain equilibrium, also known as balance.

As people grow old, the structure of their ears changes and their functionality reduces. Their ability to sense sound decreases and may experience problems maintaining their balance when sitting, walking, and standing.

Hearing loss that happens as a result of old age usually affects both ears. The ability to hear high-frequency sounds reduces. A person may also have difficulty differentiating certain sounds.

A person may also have a hard time hearing a conversation well when there is noise in the background. Once a person experiences trouble hearing, they should see a doctor to discuss their symptoms and to be checked out.

One common way of managing hearing loss is getting hearing aids fitted. Another hearing problem in older adults is persistent abnormal ear noise known as tinnitus. Tinnitus may be caused by the buildup of wax in the ear. Other causes are mild hearing loss and medicines that destroy structures inside the ear.

It is important to talk to the doctor if you are experiencing tinnitus to help you manage the condition. Impacted ear wax is common as people age and may also cause hearing problems. It is possible to remove the impacted ear wax at the hospital.

  • Vision

As we grow old, changes occur in several parts of the eyes. For instance, as we age, nerve density in the cornea decreases. The cornea is the clear dome-shaped window in front of the pupil. When this happens, a person may notice minor injuries in the outer eye.

With ae, the lens in the eyes becomes more rigid. This means that it becomes hard for it to change its shape. As a result, the ability to focus on nearby things reduces and the sense of sight is compromised.

In addition, proteins found in the lens start to break down and this can lead to cloudy areas on the lens or cataracts. This will ultimately result in hazy or blurred vision. As a person grows old, their pupils will naturally shrink over time. They react to darkness and light more slowly than they used to.

When this happens, it becomes harder to tolerate sunlight, see properly in low light, and tolerate bright lights glare. When this happens, it becomes difficult for the person to drive at night.

The retina is the tissue in the back of the eye. It sends visual information through the optic nerve to the brain. With age, the middle part of the retina starts to deteriorate and this may lead to macular degeneration which is an age-related eyesight problem.

This causes blurred or wavy vision. If left untreated it may also lead to loss of central vision. It is always important to protect all the five senses and especially as we grow old. For us to see, our eyes process light, which is then interpreted by the brain.

Light passes through the cornea and continues through the pupil. The pupil controls the amount of light entering the eye by enlarging or shrinking. The colored part of the eye is known as the iris.

The iris is the muscle that controls the size of the pupil. Once light passes through the pupil, it gets to the lens and the lens focuses the light on the retina. The retina is responsible for converting light energy into nerve signals that are carried to the brain by the optic nerve. This nerve signal is then interpreted by the brain.

As we grow old, the cornea becomes less sensitive. Pupils also reduce in size and become less reactive. The color of the lens turns yellow, becomes slightly cloudy, and is less flexible.

The fat pads that usually support the eye decrease and the eyes tend to sink into their sockets. The ability of the eye muscles to fully rotate is reduced. The sharpness of the vision is also reduced. The most common vision problem is difficulty focusing on close-up objects. This condition can be corrected using contact lenses, reading glasses, or bifocal glasses.

With age, it becomes hard to differentiate between some colors such as green and blues. It is particularly more difficult to tell blues from greens than it is to tell yellows from reds. In such a case, it is advisable to use warm contrasting colors like red, yellow, and orange to improve the ability of an elderly person to see.

Using red light in darkened rooms like the bathroom and hallway can make it easier for them to see as compared to when the regular night light is used. As we age, the vitreous found inside the eye starts to shrink. This creates small particles known as floaters in the field of vision.

Floaters don’t usually reduce the vision but when they occur suddenly or increase rapidly, it is advisable to have the eyes checked by a professional. A common vision problem is reduced peripheral vision. Reduced peripheral vision limits a person’s ability to engage in activities and interact with others. Communicating with people seated next to them becomes difficult because they cannot see them.

When eye muscles become weak, a person is not able to move their eyes in all directions like they used to. It becomes difficult to look upward and the visual field reduces. With age also the production of tears reduces. This may cause dry eyes which are usually uncomfortable. Eye drops or artificial tears may be used to ease the discomfort.

Eye disorders that cause abnormal vision changes include:

  • glaucoma – rise in fluid pressure in the eye
  • cataracts – a clouding of the lens of the eye
  • retinopathy – a disease of the retina that is usually caused by high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • macular degeneration – a disease in the macula that causes loss of vision

If you experience vision problems, you should talk to your doctor to discuss your symptoms and to have your eyes looked at by a professional.

  • Taste and Smell

There are about 10,000 taste buds on the tongue. Taste buds are responsible for sending taste signals to the brain. As we grow old, the number of these taste buds reduces. The taste buds that remain take more time to regenerate.

This results in food tasting blander. A person may pile on salt or sugar which might put them at risk for blood pressure and other health issues. The mouth also tends to reduce its saliva production which can cause dry mouth. A dry mouth may cause or worsen the sense of taste.

The sense of taste and smell are important in food safety and enjoyment.  A pleasant aroma may improve the enjoyment of life and social interaction. The sense of taste and smell allows a person to detect danger. This danger could be anything like smoke, spoiled food, and gases.

As the number of taste buds reduces with old age, those that remain to shrink and their sensitivity reduces. This causes dry mouth which may worsen the sense of taste.  Loss of nerve endings and less production of mucus in the nose are responsible for the decrease in the sense of smell, especially for people above 70 years.

Mucus found in the nose helps odors to stay in the nose a little longer to allow the nerve endings in the nose to detect them. Mucus also helps to clear odors from nerve endings. Smoking, diseases, and being exposed to harmful particles in the air may speed up the loss of taste and smell.

Loss of sense of taste and smell can interfere with our interest and enjoyment of food. It is impossible to sense certain dangers once a person loses their sense of smell. For instance, if a person cannot smell natural gas or smoke coming from a fire then they cannot be able to sense danger.

It is important to talk to your doctor if you lose your sense of smell and taste. The following may also help;

  • buying safety products like gas detectors that can sound alarms that you can hear
  • switching to a different medicine if your loss of taste and smell is caused by medications.
  • using different spices or changing the way you prepare your food.

Our sense of smell is connected to parts of the brain that process emotion and memories. This is why smells can stir up emotions, spark old memories and signal a person to danger. Sense of smell weakens as we grow old.

Some conditions may cause more sudden or temporary loss of smell. Seasonal allergies such as colds may also interfere with our sense of smell. Some medications affect our passageways and nasal cavity which may lead to polyps, inflammation, or blocked sinuses.  All of these affect our sense of smell. It is important to see your doctor or an ENT specialist determine the cause of the problem.

In some cases, difficulty identifying smells could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. This is why it is important to talk to the doctor if you experience any changes in your sense of smell.

  • Touch, vibration and pain

There are many receptors found in our skin.  These receptors enable us to perceive pain, pressure, and other tactile sensations. The epidermis is the outer layer of the skin and contains different types of nerve endings that affect our sense of touch.

As we grow old, the distribution and density of these receptors decrease. This causes the skin to become thinner making it more fragile and reducing its sensitivity to touch. It becomes hard to detect things like light touch, temperature, and texture. This may increase the risk of accidental injury for example from touching a hot plate coming from the microwave.

In addition, it takes longer for burns, cuts, and bumps to heal. As the skin glands grow old, they tend to produce less oil. This may cause dryness. When the skin is dry, it becomes less sensitive to touch. It also slows down the healing of wounds.

Sense of touch makes us more aware of vibration, pressure, temperature, body position, and vibration. Tendons, internal organs, joints, muscles, and the skin all have receptors that are responsible for detecting these sensations.

Once in the brain, the brain interprets the amount and type of touch sensation. It can interpret the sensation as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. As we age, the sensations may change or reduce. This can be due to the reduced flow of blood to the brain, spinal cord, or nerve endings. Nerve signals are transmitted to the brain through the spinal cord.

Changes in sensations may also be caused by health problems such as lack of certain nutrients. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes may also cause sensation changes. Confusion, brain surgery, problems in the brain, and damage to nerve endings from injury are possible causes of change in sensations.

Symptoms of change in sensation vary depending on their cause. A decrease in temperature sensitivity makes it hard to differentiate between hot and war, cold and cool. This increases the risk of injuries from burns, hypothermia, and frostbites.

Reduced ability to sense vibration, pressure, and touch may increase the risk of injuries such as pressure ulcers. People above 50 years have reduced pain sensitivity. These people may feel and even recognize pain but it does not bother them.

When these people are injured, they may not know the severity of the condition since they are not bothered by the pain. Interestingly, older people are more sensitive to light touch. This is because they have thinner skin. Talk to your healthcare provider if you notice changes in pain, touch, problems walking or standing.

These measures can help you stay safe:

  • Check the thermometer to decide how you are going to dress instead of waiting until you feel chilled or overheated.
  • inspecting your skin, especially the feet for any injuries. Treat all injuries without assuming they are not dangerous probably because they are not as painful.
  • Lowering water heater to avoid burns


With old age, our senses of taste, hearing, touch, smell, vision, and hearing change and are no longer as sharp as they used to be. Changes in the sensory system interfere with the quality of life of a person.

Sensory changes may cause difficulty with communicating with others, staying involved with other people, and enjoying activities.

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Sensory System Changes and Impairment in Older Adults Homework Help

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