How your senses change as you age—and how to keep them sharp

As we age, our senses become less sharp due to changes in the organs themselves, as well as changes in the brain. An aging brain is less able to perceive sensations, process information, create and store memories, and learn as some neurons die through normal aging or through disease or injury.

But maintaining a healthy brain through mental and physical exercise, as well as medical treatment, can actually improve life in our later years. Education, sensory challenges, cognitive puzzles, and exercises to improve circulation, balance, and muscle mass all support the body’s most important organ.

Our senses change as we age.

See and hear

Eyes and ears are subjected to the most dramatic tests of the time. Almost everyone over the age of 55 needs corrective lenses, at least some of the time. Some studies have found that vision problems in older people are linked to mental decline. The reason for this is not clear, but logic suggests that the deterioration in reading vision and hand-eye coordination would limit the ability to perform brain-strengthening exercises.

Hearing also decreases, with the ability to hear high-pitched sounds being the first function to disappear. Once considered a disease of old age, younger patients experience hearing loss at high altitudes thanks to our noisy world.


Aging weakens memory. Normal memory degradation occurs for both recent and long-past events. Older people also lose some level of working memory, the “mental desktop” that allows them to store and manipulate information for a few seconds.

An older brain may try to force recall of unsafe information by asking the frontal lobes to help with memory, but PET scans show it has more trouble activating those lobes. However, there are practical ways to combat memory loss. Among them is simple exercise. Studies have shown that exercise improves memory in older women with mild cognitive impairment.

Interestingly, aerobic exercise seemed to be slightly better for verbal memory and strength training slightly better for associative memory — the ability to remember things in context. One factor could be the protein cathepsin B, which is released by muscles during exercise. At least in mice, this protein makes cells in the hippocampus, a brain region essential for memory.

dementia and stroke

Neither dementia nor stroke are normal parts of the aging process. Dementia, from the Latin for “gone” and “mind”, describes a variety of symptoms resulting from up to 50 disorders of the brain; all involve the destruction of neurons. Doctors diagnose dementia when two or more brain functions, typically including memory and language, are significantly impaired.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and affects the parts of the brain crucial for remembering, thinking and reasoning. It is characterized by an accumulation of plaques and tangles in the brain.

A stroke occurs instantly when a blood clot or ruptured artery cuts off blood flow to the brain. Without oxygen-rich blood, brain cells die, taking with them the cognitive and motor functions they enable.

All is not lost

Despite the gradual decline of our senses with age, apart from a decrease in processing speeds, healthy, mature brains perform about as well as adolescents on any task that requires planning, analyzing, and organizing information.

And some areas of mental performance even increase with age. For example, in the absence of disease, an older brain enjoys a larger vocabulary and sharpened language skills.

Not to be neglected: Optimistic older people live longer than pessimists.

Portions of this material appeared in Your Brain: A User’s Guide, by Patricia S Daniels. Copyright (c) 2019 National Geographic Society.

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