Older Adults Could Lose More Than Just Their Memory

Nearly all older adults in the US have at least one sensory deficit, suggest University of Chicago


If your grandmother complains that food doesn't taste the way it used to, she may be on to something.

A study from the University of Chicago found that nearly all adults had age-related damage to at least one of their five senses. More than a quarter have three or more sensory deficits. The study also found differences associated with age, race and gender.

As people age, vision and hearing changes are common. What's less well-known is that taste, touch and smell may also become weaker.

Previous research has shown that these sensory impairments may also predict an earlier death. Sensory impairment can affect social interactions and quality of life.

Lead study author Jayant Pinto, MD, commented in a press release, “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.”

Dr. Pinto is an associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Pinto and colleagues studied more than 3,000 people between the ages of 57 and 85. Study participants were assessed using face-to-face interviews and standard testing methods. People who used glasses, contact lenses and hearing aids could wear them during the tests

A decrease in tasting ability was found in almost three-quarters of the participants. About half the participants had impaired sensitivity to touch.

Men generally scored lower than women in hearing, smell and taste. African Americans scored lower in all senses except hearing. Hispanics scored higher on taste but lower on vision, touch and smell.

The researchers theorized that sensory impairment results from a common factor, although they don't know what it is. Among the possibilities are nerve degeneration, environmental causes or genetic susceptibility.

“Our findings here give us a better appreciation of the prevalence of multi-sensory loss, a first step toward learning more about what causes the senses to decline. We need to understand the biology behind the links between age and sensory loss and design better ways to prevent its decline,” Dr. Pinto said in the press release. “People caring for older adults, including family members, caregivers and physicians, should pay close attention to impairments in vision, hearing, and smell.

The study was published in the February issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health.

None of the authors reported a conflict of interest.