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Chapter: Essentials of Anatomy and Physiology: Senses

Effects of Aging on the Senses

Describe changes that occur in the senses with aging.


As a person ages, both the general and the special sensory func-tions gradually decline. Among the general senses, free nerve endings and hair follicle receptors in the skin remain largely unchanged. However, the numbers of Meissner corpuscles and pacinian corpuscles decrease with age, and those that remain are often structurally distorted and less functional. As a result, elderly people are less conscious of something touching or pressing the skin, which increases the risk of skin injuries. The sense of two-point discrimination decreases, and the elderlyhave a more difficult time identifying objects by touch. A loss of pacinian corpuscles also decreases their awareness of limb and joint positions, which can affect balance and coordination. The functions of receptors for proprioception also decline with age, which decreases information on the position, tension, and length of tendons and muscles. This can further reduce coordination and control of movements.

 Among the special senses, elderly people experience only a slight loss in the ability to detect odors. However, their ability to correctly identify specific odors decreases, especially in men over age 70.

 In general, the sense of taste decreases as people age. The number of sensory receptors decreases, and the brain’s ability to interpret taste sensations declines.

 The lenses of the eyes lose flexibility as a person ages because the connective tissue of the lenses becomes more rigid. Consequently, the lenses’ ability to change shape initially declines and eventually is lost. This condition, called presbyopia, is the most common age-related change in the eyes. In addition, the number of cones decreases, especially in the fovea centralis, resulting in a gradual decline in visual acuity and color perception.

 The most common visual problem in older people requiring medical treatment, such as surgery, is the development of cataracts. Following cataracts in frequency are macular degeneration, glau-coma, and diabetic retinopathy, in that order (see the Diseases and Disorders table earlier).

 As people age, the number of hair cells in the cochlea decreases, resulting in age-related sensorineural hearing loss, called presbya cusis. This decline doesn’t occur equally in both ears. Therefore,because direction is determined by comparing sounds coming into each ear, elderly people may experience a decreased ability to local-ize the origin of certain sounds. This may lead to a general sense of disorientation. In addition, CNS defects in the auditory pathways can lead to difficulty understanding sounds when echoes or back-ground noises are present. This deficit makes it difficult for elderly people to understand rapid or broken speech.

 With age, the number of hair cells in the saccule, utricle, and ampullae decreases. The number of otoliths also declines. As a result, elderly people experience a decreased sensitivity to gravity, acceleration, and rotation, which may lead to disequilibrium (insta-bility) and vertigo (a feeling of spinning). Some elderly people feel that they can’t maintain posture and are prone to fall.

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