Grumpy Old Men and Crabby Old Ladies
Little Brother Paul

Sensing Some Loss

category_bug_journal2.gif The American actress, Bette Davis, famously said that “old age ain’t for sissies” and a big reason, certainly, for everyone’s considerable fear of aging is the physical decline we see in those who are older that we are.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that all my five senses aren’t quite what they once were. So far, at 63, the changes are only mildly annoying, easily adapted to and attributable not to disease, but aging - which is (not wanting to buy trouble) what I was interested in knowing. So I took a little tour around the Web and what I found is pretty much as expected.

SIGHT
The experts agree that decline in vision and hearing are the most dramatic, and they offer some fascinating random insights:

“The pupil size decreases by 60 years old to one-third of the size it was at age 20.”

“For people of all ages, it is harder to tell blues and greens from each other than to tell apart reds and yellows. This becomes more pronounced with aging.”

“Almost everyone older than 55 needs glasses at least part of the time. However, the amount of change is not universal.”

“Some aging-related changes can begin as early as your 30s.”

Mine began at age 12 when I first needed glasses to see the blackboard at school. I switched to contact lenses five years later and my eye doctor recently told me that he has contact lens patients in their 90s. To dispense with reading glasses I wear one lens for distance and one for close-up, and I’m betting, for now, that will work until I’m dead.

HEARING
The experts say hearing grows less sharp as early as age 50 and is inevitable for most everyone, with a particular loss of the ability to hear high-frequency sounds. I can’t say if that’s happened to me. It’s sort of like memory; since I'm not a musician with a finely trained ear, how would I know?

I couldn’t find much information on my problem which is that it has become, in the past ten years or so, difficult to hear someone speaking near me when there is a lot of background noise. I never liked noisy places anyway, so it doesn’t put much of a crimp in my life.

TASTE AND SMELL
These two senses go together because, although distinct, they work in tandem too and along with everything else, they decline with age. Here are some more nifty facts:

“Taste buds can recognize some 10,000 different flavors. Attached to each taste bud are flavor-receiving cells that every 10 days are replaced with fresh new cells.”

“We all have approximately 9,000 taste buds…The number of taste buds decreases beginning at about 40 to 50 years old on women and 50 to 60 years old in men.”

“…the keenness of smell diminishes faster with age than does the keenness of taste…In the average octogenarian, the sense of smell is half as sharp as it was during his or her youth.”

My expansive waistline is proof that my taste remains strong. I almost always eat not from hunger, but pleasure in flavors and textures. Diminished ability to smell, however, is the most irritating loss for me; it’s all but gone - some of it, undoubtedly, related to the years I smoked cigarettes. Garlic, fortunately, remains strong and oddly, I can smell a freshly cut cantaloupe from 10 yards away. I’ve given up perfume and cologne because I can no longer tell how much is too much.

TOUCH
Skin, they say, loses some ability to sense pain, pressure and vibration with age. “There can be a change in temperature sensitivity too,” and for this I am grateful. Until recent years, many a foul-mouthed muttering could be heard from me against the gods of winter wind and cold. Now I feel them less and have gained a larger appreciation of the wonderland snowstorms create, although I suspect, in my case, it has more to do with at last understanding the wisdom of clothing layers and hats over fashion.

So far, I have not needed any Bette Davis-style courage to deal with the physical changes that have come along which I seem naturally to accept without the whining at fate I was prone to in youth.

Everything wears out and unless you are among those who believe modern science (or quackery) will miraculously restore your youthful being while granting you another 50 or 100 years of life, it’s best to adapt and get on with living.

Further Reading
Aging Changes in Senses
How the Five Sense Change with Age
Age-Related Changes in the Senses

Comments

Well, neat! Sounds to me like Mother Nature has a built in system to block out some of the noise and bold aggravations in life just as our patience starts to wear thin.

Stamina is what I miss the keenest.

but I wouldn't trade my late-life wisdom for it (stamina)

Another great posting, Ronni! As the bumper sticker says, "...I miss my mind the most." Actually, my sight is my big problem. I'm only 66, but it is increasingly difficult for me to drive at dusk, at twilight, or in fog or gloomy days. There are too many floaters hanging about in either eye! I liken it to looking at the world through lace curtains.
Differentiating between noise and people's voices is not as easy as once it was; and, unfortunately, my high-pitch hearing is super-sensitive. I must wear earplugs to any musical performance and in some restaurants. I noticed at my brother's house last week that I had to wear earplugs whenever they turned on their television--and the earplugs really weren't enough when they were watching football!
I suspect that those of us who are prone to migraine maintain sensitivity of hearing and smell better than most people. Sounds and smells are still bad to me--my husband must use the kitchen exhaust fan if he expects to brew himself some coffee. Oh, well. Lots of folks my age have been dead for several years, so I can't complain.

Ronni:

You were so right in your statement, "Everything wears out and unless you are among those who believe modern science (or quackery) will miraculously restore your youthful being while granting you another 50 or 100 years of life, it’s best to adapt and get on with living."

I read a book last week by Francis Fukuyama -- famous for his End of History essay and book -- in which he questioned the value of pushing human life out to 130, 140 or more years. If we're "stuck in our ways" at 70, what will be our disposition at twice that age he asks.

I had a serious health crisis this past summer -- at age 71, the first I've ever experienced. As I coped with it from my hospital bed, I was reminded of the old idea that "nothing concentrates the mind like the immediate prospect of dying." But I came away from the experience with the idea that "nothing concentrates the mind like the purposely considered prospect of living." In other words, the idea of living should be more riveting than the idea of dying.

A little recognized fact among younger people is that after 60 or so, many, many people begin to worry quite a lot less about dying than about cramming as much meaning, excitement and joy in their life as possible.

So -- you are right: it’s best to adapt and get on with living."


David--I would agree with the futility of adding "useless" years; but, I truly believe that the average person who is 65, today, is equal in outlook to an average person of my grandmother's generation who was 50 (give or take a few years on either number.) Right now, 130 or 140 sounds outrageous; but, progress in health care and life style understanding may make it seem a happy prospect--when and if people ever get to that point.

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