Health & Wellness / Home & Family

Benefits of Research on the Five Senses

Aging can be hard on the body, but there is hope in learning from the process and how it relates to the five senses.

A natural and rather unfortunate side of aging includes some declines in sharpness of vision and hearing accuracy. Olfaction, the ability to smell, gustation, the ability to detect taste, and tactile perception, the sense of touch also decline with age per the National Center for Biotechnology Information. In humans, these changes generally become somewhat noticeable around age 50. For example, adults 50 plus may begin reaching for glasses to read labels or describe some foods that they have always enjoyed as bland. Scientists are studying multi-sensory decline as it relates to growing older to slow impairments and improve the quality of life for the aging population. There are some exciting things to learn.

WebMD, a leading source of health and medical information, describes a 2016 study conducted by Dr. Jayant Pinto of the University of Chicago. Research involving 3,000 people between the ages of 57 and 85 showed that 94 percent had a problem with at least one of the five traditional senses; taste, smell, hearing, sight, or touch. Overall, at least 64 percent of participants had a major decline in at least one sense, and 22 percent had major declines in two or more. The most common problem was a decrease in the sense of taste, with nearly three-quarters of those in the study reporting this condition. Declines in the sense of touch were also prevalent, with 38 percent of participants reporting a “fair” sense of touch and 32 percent reporting “poor” for that sense. And, as expected, the oldest people faced the most sensory deficits.

Our senses help us learn, experience life, and link us to the world. Thus, they are important. The study described above is significant because it identifies problems related to aging, which is a vital first step that drives medical researchers to find solutions. Interestingly, senses work together. For example, taste buds help people discover if foods are salty, sweet, bitter, or sour. At the same time, people smell the food’s aroma and see what they’re eating. If one part fails, such as an unpleasant odor or strange color, it can affect taste and how much we enjoy foods. Our senses help us to survive. We use the senses to gather information and respond. The different information coming in is combined and interpreted by the brain. Sometimes, when one sense is lacking, the others may strengthen to help the brain learn from the environment.  

People who experience medical problems related to the five senses are encouraged to see their doctors. It’s important to know that many conditions and symptoms related to sensory loss are treatable. For example, a nasal polyp contributes to someone’s inability to smell when it blocks the nasal passage. Surgery to remove the polyp or medications to reduce swelling or the size of the polyp are examples of treatment options. Or a person may be told to exercise their eyes for conditions related to how their eyes work together, such as blurred vision, eye strain, and increased light sensitivity.

Some medications, or behaviors such as smoking, can affect taste and smell. If so, doctors will likely encourage patients to switch medications or discontinue behaviors that negatively affect the senses. Many senior citizens, by no fault of their own, live with some age-associated conditions which affect their vision, such as glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration. With much medical progress of recent vision and hearing problems that older people experience can also be addressed to maximize health, safety, independence, and happiness.

Studies are now examining correlations between the senses and overall health and outcomes. While focusing science on taste buds might sound silly, it is surprisingly beneficial as medical conditions that affect the brain, nose, or mouth can result in a change of taste. Healthline, another reliable source of health and medical information, states that “Nervous system disorders that affect the nerves of the mouth or brain, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS) and Alzheimer’s disease, may cause change in the perception of taste.” Clinicians are anxious to learn from studies involving taste and smell and the diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease (PD), not only for early diagnosis but to increase knowledge of PD’s pathophysiology. Advances in science, such as robotic technology can also be expanded to help people make up for sensory deficits. For example, assistive devices for the hand can help individuals who have lost the ability to touch and grasp items on their own following a stroke.

Other amazing medical advances now exist. Dr. Hossam Haick of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology built an olfactory system used to diagnose cancer. He developed a sensor called a NaNose that measures VOCs in the breath. This device predicted cancer in more than 1,400 subjects in 17 countries with 86 percent accuracy. Increased knowledge of the senses not only provides hope for the prompt diagnosis of disease but sparks promise for early medical intervention and treatments – and eventual cures. Since humans rely on the five senses to function well, live independently, and enjoy life, those who face declines of the senses, whether minor or major, will unquestionably benefit from this area of research.

This article is purely informational and is not intended as a medical resource.


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