It is hard to be sure but it seems to be so for me. And it is really annoying.
For example, one day last week, I dropped a spoon on the kitchen floor. I picked it up, rinsed it off and as I reached for the towel, I dropped in again. Damn.
A day or two before that, I had dropped the shampoo bottle in the shower – a new, full one that barely missed my toes. Later that day, I dropped the two-quart, plastic box where I store the cat's dry food, scattering it all over the kitchen. Damn again.
Not long ago, I dropped a nine-inch butcher knife – that one could have been disastrous – but on another day I was lucky to be standing on a carpet when I dropped my mobile phone so it didn't break.
None of these occurrences is important individually and probably not even in their proximity to one another. But they made me wonder if dropping stuff is a “thing” with old people. So I took to the internet.
There is a lot of unsourced and untrustworthy health information online and that is always dangerous for “low information viewers,” as it were. The first I found was a large number of forums where people with no expertise were freely offering their uninformed opinions.
In answer to inquiries about dropping things, many instantly went to fear-mongering: Based on nothing at all, they advised people to see a doctor right away because it could be an early symptom of MS, ALS, Huntington's disease and more.
That's nuts. Those were anonymous forums, for god's sake. I hope no one takes them seriously.
Digging deeper at more reputable websites, I found that sometimes dropping things can be among the symptoms of serious disease but only one symptom, a minor one among dozens of others anyone would notice long before worrying about dropping something.
Checking further, I found that dropping things is not a big enough issue with growing old to warrant much notice.
In fact, a webpage of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for training elder home staff is the only direct mention of elders dropping things I found.
”The sense of touch changes,” they report. “In older adults the sense of touch may decrease as skin loses sensitivity. Pressure, pain, cold and heat do not feel the same as they used to feel. Decreases in touch sensitivity may cause residents to drop things.”
That reference to skin losing sensitivity reminded me that a few years ago, I discovered through personal experience that old people often cannot be fingerprinted, particulalry with electronic scanners, because their fingerprints are worn off.
When I wrote about that here three years ago, I quoted Scientific American magazine:
”...the elasticity of skin decreases with age, so a lot of senior citizens have prints that are difficult to capture. The ridges get thicker; the height between the top of the ridge and the bottom of the furrow gets narrow, so there's less prominence. So if there's any pressure at all [on the scanner], the print just tends to smear.”
That would certainly affect sense of touch and the ability to know if you are holding things tightly enough. A report from Oregon State University [pdf] concurs with Pennsylvania report supplying a bit more medical information:
”With aging, sensations may be reduced or changed. These changes can occur because of decreased blood flow to the nerve endings or to the spinal cord or brain. The spinal cord transmits nerve signals and the brain interprets these signals.
“Health problems, such as a lack of certain nutrients, can also cause sensation changes. Brain surgery, problems in the brain, confusion, and nerve damage from injury or chronic diseases such as diabetes can also result in sensation changes.”
I finally found the most pertinent answer to my question at The New York Times. Noting that fine touch may decrease in old age,
“Many studies have shown that with aging, you may have reduced or changed sensations of pain, vibration, cold, heat, pressure, and touch. It is hard to tell whether these changes are related to aging itself or to the disorders that occur more often in the elderly...”
This Times information is quoted from A.D.A.M., a private source of medical information for health professionals and other paid subscribers.
So what I have deduced from two or three hours on the internet is that barring injury or disease or, perhaps, waning strength that affects one's ability to grip strongly, maybe elders do drop things more frequently.
Maybe a diminishing sense of touch in general means that we cannot effortlessly perceive the appropriate strength of our grasp as automatically as when we were younger. At least, that's what I choose to believe for myself until someone enlightens me further.
Following on that, for the past few days I have been making a conscious effort to be sure I am holding whatever is in my hand tightly enough that it will not slip.
I want that to become second nature because the knife I mentioned was a close call and I certainly don't want to drop a cup of hot coffee on my foot or the cat.
Does any of this ring a bell for you?