Our senses don't exist as separate abilities, nor do they exist in a vacuum. Instead, they are interconnected and frequently changing -- they're deeply affected by our environment, the way we use them and numerous other factors, some of which are within our control.
In this article, we'll take a look at our five senses, along with a few other sense-like traits (such as intuition and attention), and we'll consider how senses change over time and how to improve them. We'll also pay close attention to how to compensate for the natural sense decline that accompanies aging or is a side effect of accident or disease.
10. Age-related Sense Loss
Age-related decline in the senses is both natural and inevitable. As we get older, our senses and nerve pathways can become less finely attuned, requiring more stimulation to produce results. To that end, noises must be louder, tastes stronger, or else such sensations will go undetected.
Age-related hearing loss is known as presbycusis, and it's a common condition, occurring in about 50 percent of people aged 75 or older [source: NIH]. It's a multifactorial condition, meaning it can have several contributing factors, including extremely loud noises (especially on a regular basis), genetics, high blood pressure and even smoking.
Your vision too can start declining, even as early as your thirties, when it's common for eyes to start becoming dryer [source: NIH]. There are physical changes as well. Over the years, a person's pupils will decrease in size, which helps to account for the fact that most people in the senior set require glasses for reading, if not for everyday use.
Taste buds start disappearing in middle age, and sense of smell begins its decline a decade or two after that.
We're used to talking about hearing and vision problems in the elderly, but those aren't the only senses that could go. One's sense of smell is at its strongest by 8 years of age. Decline may occur in one's senior years, though some experts contend that it may begin decades earlier [source: SIRC].
Your sense of smell serves both as a means of delight -- offering the pleasure of fine smells -- and a tool that warns you of possible danger, such as spoiled food.
Sense of smell can decline with age, but it can also be damaged or lost completely (known as anosmia) due to accident or disease. Some psychiatric disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia, may be linked to loss of smell [source: SIRC]. There can be numerous other causes for a decline in the sense of smell, some of which may be permanent: severe anorexia or malnutrition, a brain tumor, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis or a traumatic brain injury. If you're experiencing a sudden impairment of your sense of smell, you should probably consider consulting a doctor, who may find an underlying but treatable condition. Keep in mind also that smoking likely affects one's sense of smell [source: SIRC].
Besides responding to a disease with treatment, or stopping smoking, there are other things you can do to boost your sense of smell. Some anti-allergy medications have been known to boost the capacity to smell, as can saline nasal sprays [source: NIH]. Take heart that your sense of smell is likely to be better when you're hungry and during the spring and summer months. Stay away from bad smells, and exercise regularly.
Additionally, people's smell sensitivity can be trained, at least to an extent. Practicing smelling potent odors can train your nose to be more acutely aware of those particular smells.
How food tastes is not simply determined by how it, well, tastes. There's a mental component (think about the "tastes like chicken" cliché) as well as contributions from olfactory receptors in the nose, which sense nuances of flavor our taste buds cannot. Consequently, to maximize taste, some recommend preparing food so that it is easily identifiable [source: Readers Digest]. A venison dish may taste more like a venison dish if diners can be sure, on a conscious and subconscious level, that a venison dish is what they're eating.
Taste can be affected by some medications, so if you experience a sudden change in your tasting abilities, you may want to research any medications you're taking and consult with your doctor.
To improve your sense of taste, practice "mindful eating," wherein you eat slowly, focusing on your meal and the flavors therein. Avoid extremes -- too much salt or sugar, too much alcohol or food that's too hot (everyone has experienced the feeling of a burned tongue temporarily knocking down one's sense of taste). Drink water to stay hydrated and keep your mouth moist.
In order to improve taste and enjoyment of food, some eaters have taken up a method known as "mindful eating," which argues that focusing on one's food -- and avoiding distractions like watching TV while eating -- increases taste, makes eating a more pleasant experience and creates a closer, more deliberate relationship between eater and cuisine [source: Chozen]. Mindful eaters also aim to return more of the pleasure to eating by focusing on what foods provide contentment and delicious tastes, rather than what's the least fatty or most convenient.
Our sense of touch offers us a lot of information about the surrounding world. But with age, disease, accident or other events, this sense can be altered. Decreased blood flow or nerve sensitivity -- a common effect of old age -- may lessen one's sensitivity to cold, which could be problematic in severe weather. On the other hand, many older folks have less sensitivity to pain, which may be helpful in coping with health problems.
To improve your sense of touch, first try looking at, and focusing on, that with which you're physically interacting. Research has indicated that one's tactile perceptions are related to vision, so touching a soft blanket may be more pleasurable if you observe your hand touching the blanket. The corollary to this is that if you look away from something -- say, a bandage you're about to rip off -- you're likely to feel it less [source: O'Brien].
Most other research into boosting sense of touch has focused on how to help those who've lost this sense, often through injury. These efforts have taught us that our fingerprints, particularly the swirling grooves, are a key component of touch, allowing us to better detect vibrations and changes in texture [source: Zyga].
The most obvious and common method of improving vision is to use glasses or contact lenses, although these products are only designed for those who have impaired vision. But there are other ways in which you can improve your vision, or, at the very least, promote better eye health.
A solid regimen of vitamins A, B, C and E is a good place to start. You can find these in multivitamins, as well as in whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, wearing sunglasses outdoors can help alleviate damage from the sun's ultraviolet rays.
Several studies have found a surprisingly beneficial visual effect of playing video games (and one that might provide some comfort to parents of game-addicted children). It turns out that playing video games, particularly frenetic action games, may actually improve eyesight and spatial recognition. Researchers at the University of Rochester found that playing games such as "Unreal Tournament" boosted subjects' contrast sensitivity -- the ability to distinguish objects from one another and from the image's background [source: Roy Britt].
If you are having problems with your hearing -- say, from age-related hearing loss or as a result of an accident or disease -- then hearing aids are one obvious solution. Unfortunately, age-related hearing loss is considered irreversible, and about 17 percent of Americans over the age of 18 have diminished hearing, with the percentage rising considerably among those aged 65 or older [source: Moore].
Your diminished hearing could also be caused by impacted earwax (more common in older folks), which can be easily dealt with at your doctor's office or by using earwax softening drops from your local pharmacy.
Finally, some medications you might be taking could negatively impact your hearing.
Hearing is another sense that draws on our other senses, particularly vision. All people perform some degree of lip-reading; it's just that the hearing-impaired do it in a more conscious, deliberate manner [source: Cytowic]. Facing towards and focusing on your conversation partners can significantly help in understanding them, as can minimizing surrounding noise.
When it comes to improving attention, Ritalin, Adderall and other Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) -- or "neuroenhancement" -- drugs appear high on the list of potential solutions. Yet not all people with attention deficits are diagnosed with ADHD, nor are all people comfortable taking the commonly prescribed drugs. There are, however, a number of other things that you can do to try to improve your attention.
Stress and lack of sleep can both harm attention. The latter can obviously be solved by getting more sleep, and exercise is a commonly accepted stress reliever. Similarly, meditation has been shown to both relieve stress and, in a study by researchers at the University of California at Davis, improve attention and perception [source: Nauert].
To many people, video games are synonymous with distraction and fleeting thrills, but several games either on the market or created for research studies have shown that it's how you use the medium. These games, with names such as "Play Attention" and "S.M.A.R.T. (Self Mastery and Regulation Training) BrainGames," have been devised specifically to emphasize concentration and to reward gamers who show positive results by resisting impulsive behavior. Some of the games use specialized helmets that respond to a player's brainwaves. For example, in the game "Play Attention," a player can direct a bird to fly higher only by concentrating on it.
In recent years, the nebulous term "intuition" has come to be associated with the writer Malcolm Gladwell, who in his mega-bestseller "Blink" wrote about what he called "rapid cognition" -- quick, instinctive judgments that turn out to be correct. In Gladwell's formulation (which has many prominent detractors as well as supporters) certain individuals have honed their mental pathways to make snap decisions that may seem instinctive -- that is, a product of "intuition" -- but are in fact based on very fast, information-fed calculations. Moreover, Gladwell says, these decisions are sometimes more accurate than extended rational analyses.
Gladwell's book has been severely criticized by some academics, but it does raise some useful questions about assumptions that are useful in our discussion of the senses. For example, we've established that the senses don't work separately but in fact are interwoven, frequently complementing and enhancing one another.
In a similar vein, the popular belief that blind people have heightened senses (particularly hearing) is essentially false. Repeated studies have shown that blind people don't have innately more acute senses [source: PsyBlog]. Instead, the blind are often able to use their experience to better employ their senses. For example, by practicing how to navigate a room based on touch or by identifying people by their distinctive voices, the blind are frequently able to apply a degree of intuition -- to make many quick, useful calculations -- to their fully functioning senses. We might all be able to boost our intuition, to make our senses work better for us, by simply focusing more and by reassessing how best to use the senses we have.
When considering the relationship between diet and the senses, most of the things that hold true for overall health also apply -- eat a moderate and balanced diet, with a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with plenty of water. A diet rich in vitamins and antioxidants should help you maintain good vision and hearing, while providing a bulwark against some age-related conditions such as macular degeneration [source: ScienceDaily]. So-called superfruits, such as wolfberries, which are high in antioxidants, have also been found to positively affect vision [source: ScienceDaily].
Zinc, which is plentiful in oysters but can also be found in many multivitamins, has been shown to help in the fight against macular degeneration. Zinc may also boost one's sense of smell, as could eating hot spices. And while popular opinion has it that carrots improve eyesight, that's not the whole story. Because they're rich in vitamin A, carrots are certainly good for eye health, but vitamin A can also be found in dairy and meat, the latter of which is better absorbed by the body than vegetable-borne vitamin A [sources: Koury and NIH].
Finally, it's sometimes just as consequential what you forego eating. A 2002 study found that high levels of the food additive MSG (monosodium glutamate) damaged rats' eyesight. However, scientists cautioned that the occasional meal of Chinese takeout (which often contains MSG) should not pose a problem [source: BBC].
1. Drugs and Medicine
Call it better sensing through chemistry: Some recent experimental drugs promise to boost our senses, though their efficacy and safety, in some cases, remain unclear. In one study, the results of which were published in the journal "Science" in 2004, researchers used an amphetamine drug to boost subjects' sense of touch and measured the effects when lightly pricking subjects' fingers with thin needles. The researchers believed that their data could eventually be used to help Braille readers or even stroke victims who have lost sensitivity in their extremities [source: Kane].
The club drug ecstasy is known for greatly increasing a user's sensitivity to touch and sensation, but the drug is also illegal, considered extremely dangerous and without any accepted medical value. Such is the case for many supposed sense-boosting drugs.
Generally, drugs that target the senses are given in response to a medical problem that has already diminished or otherwise handicapped that sense -- for example, medicated eye drops prescribed for a glaucoma patient. Offering prescribed medications -- much less something over-the-counter -- to boost otherwise healthy senses flies in the face of medicine's ethical standards. Baseball slugger Barry Bonds allegedly found that human growth hormone (HGH) improved his eyesight, but the drug remains controversial, banned by many collegiate and pro sports, and it may only be prescribed to patients with below-average hormone levels [sources: Kroichick and Hellerman]. So until the day comes when you might have a genuine medical need, remain grateful and try practicing some of the tips discussed in this article for staying healthy and for making better use of the senses you've been given.
For more information about the body's senses and other related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.
Lots More Information
- Memory Puzzles
- 10 Steps to Brain Fitness
- 10 Most Diagnosed Mental Disorders
- Neurology Pictures
- Alternative Medicine Puzzles
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