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 In Blog, Sensory Processing

Researchers know that sensory problems come with old age. A new study from the University of Chicago finds that age-related sensory damage is more widespread than was previously realized. The study reports that nearly all older adults have at least one sensory deficit and over one-quarter have three or more sensory deficits. The findings are important for understanding the scope of health risks related to a loss of sensitivity.

Data for the study came from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP), conducted from 2005 to 2006. Researchers used a nationally representative sample of 3,005 adults aged 57 to 85. Professional teams assessed the participants’ sensory abilities in all five senses using validated tests. For example, to test vision, they allowed participants to wear their glasses and they observed how well they were able to see in typical home lighting conditions. For each sense, participants were rated “good” (typical abilities), “fair” (about half of normal sensitivity), and “poor” (around one-quarter of normal sensitivity).

Ninety-four percent of older adults have at least one sensory deficit, 38 percent have at least two deficits, and 28 percent have three or more sensory deficits. The research demonstrated that men scored worse than women on hearing, smell, and taste. However, women scored worse on vision. A loss of gustatory sensitivity was the most prevalent, with 74 percent having a limited sense of taste. Tactile sensitivity was also strongly impacted: only 30 percent were rated with a “good” sense of touch.

Study author Jayant Pinto, MD, associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago, explains how a loss of sensitivity can impact health in older adults. “We know that sensory impairment is common and is often a harbinger of serious health problems, such as cognitive decline or falls, as well as more subtle ones like burns, caused by loss of touch sensitivity, food poisoning that goes undetected because of loss of smell and taste, and smoke inhalation, from loss of smell. Our findings [are] … a first step toward learning more about what causes the senses to decline.”

This research is published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

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