How Age Affects Our Senses

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  • 0:01 Aging
  • 0:42 Eyes
  • 2:12 Ears
  • 3:51 Taste & Smell
  • 5:17 Skin
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson is a broad summary of the changes that occur to your senses as you age. We examine the five classic senses, as well as the more obscure, such as balance and the varying types of skin sensations.

Aging

Let's look at how age affects our senses by breaking them up into each specific sense. We have a lot to cover, so we'll start near the top and then work our way down.

Eyes

The eyes are a complex organ of fluid-filled cavities and extremely sensitive receptors. How sensitive are the receptors in your eye? If you push lightly on your eye, you will see spots of white. This is the receptor in your eye turning physical pressure into a sensation, or a basic unit of information sent to your brain. If you see green lights, stop! You are pushing too hard. Though, I must advise you that you probably shouldn't do this anyway.

As we age, the fluid begins to cloud and tear, resulting in what is called floaters. I know I said the fluid tears, and it does because there are small strings of proteins in it that break up. I was confused by this for a long time, too. These clouding and tears obstruct light as it comes in, messing up the light as it makes its way to the receptors in the back of the eye. Think of it like crud on a window. It blocks or distorts the light.

Also, the receptors begin to break down, resulting in a loss of detail, this being one of the reasons older people need reading glasses. There is also the issue of nighttime, in which there is less light to activate the receptors, meaning that there is a doubling or tripling in loss of detail during nighttime. This is why so many older people don't like to drive at night.

Ears

In your ears, you have two very complex organs. The middle ear is a series of bones and structures related to hearing. This includes things like the incus, malleus and stapes. The inner ear is where all the good bits are, which is the portion of the ear with the cochlea and vestibular organ. What we want to focus on is that all of these systems are extremely small and start out very sensitive.

Of particular interest is the cochlea, which is a fluid-filled organ that looks like a small snail shell. It works by sound waves pushing against the bones, which causes pressure in the cochlea to go up and down based on the sound being made. The pressure pushes these tiny little hairs in it that are attached to nerves. That is hearing, in a nutshell.

The problems arise when the little hairs are ripped out, scar tissue begins to form and pus fills the cochlea due to damage. Bet you're regretting those rock concerts now that you know that you may have caused some nasty stuff to your ear.

The vestibular organ in the ear uses pressure as well. Several fluid-filled sacks let you orient yourself, or if they are sloshing, lets you know the general direction you're moving. This is why many people get seasick or throw up after a roller coaster. As we age, the vestibular organ becomes less sensitive, resulting in a reduced capacity to feel and maintain balance. This results in older people falling over more easily and breaking their hips and legs.

Taste and Smell

We all know that taste and smell overlap, and both of these degrade over time. The nose is a receptor organ sensitive to chemical cues. Inside the nose is mucus, which traps various bits of things flying in the air. The bits of stuff in the mucus travel down and make contact with a receptor that sends off a signal of what it is. This is why some things can smell like other things but not actually be them: they use the same receptor sites.

The tongue is a receptor organ sensitive to chemical, pH, salt and texture. There are receptors all over the tongue that respond to various things, like sugar, pH (which gives us sour), salt and various textural cues. These all work by extremely complicated processes that will be explored in other lessons.

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