Sense of sight, smell and taste can remain strong despite aging

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Our senses connect us to the world. They are the givers of pleasure and receivers of information. And it is a fact that, as we age, our senses lose their acuity. What once was sweet becomes bland. What once was clear becomes blurred.

But that doesn't mean we must surrender to these losses. Aging is a normal process that is different for each individual. With the right care, a healthy individual at any age can experience fully what the world has to offer.

Experts agree that prevention is the key to good vision and hearing as well as healthy teeth. All these systems depend, like other parts of the body, on an individual's overall health.

And while there is little you can do to prevent hereditary problems (if your parents both wore bifocals, for example, you probably will too), many disabilities stem from poor diet and/or lack of exercise.

Diet is perhaps the single largest factor in preventing many maladies. Everyone knows it's important to maintain a balanced diet, but that's not always easy or pleasant. As teeth and gums grow older, some foods become difficult to chew, and certain medicines elders take affect food's flavor. What's more, elders on fixed incomes can't always buy the highest-quality ingredients or meals.

Malnutrition, however, wreaks havoc.

A balanced diet rich in vegetables, grains and other foods goes a long way, as does exercise, toward maintaining health. However, certain areas such as vision, hearing and teeth, require special attention.

Most people's eyesight begins to change in their mid-30s: Corrective lenses, improved nutrition and sometimes surgery can help.

Two major eye disorders, glaucoma and cataracts, commonly affect seniors.

Glaucoma is a hereditary condition marked by an increase of pressure within the eyeball, often damaging the optic nerve and diminishing the sufferer's vision.

Since at its onset glaucoma has no obvious symptoms, it is nicknamed the "silent thief." It can be controlled with medication or surgery, if detected early. Only regular opthalmological checkups can spot glaucoma in its early, treatable stages.

A cataract is the clouding of the lens or the membrane surrounding the eye so that less light reaches the retina. If it is untreated, blindness usually results.

Common in people over 50, cataracts can be removed by surgery or by laser. Special corrective lenses or contact lenses can compensate for vision loss.

The Academy of Opthamology recommends regular eye exams for all seniors, especially those with a family history of eye disease, and for diabetics, whose systemic problems often affect their vision. The academy cites these warning signs of potentially serious eye problems:

*Hazy or blurred vision

*Recurring pain in or around the eyes

*Double vision

*Flashes of light or halos around lights

*A change in color of the pupil of the eye

*Sensitivity to light or glare

*Diminished peripheral vision

Most people lose some degree of hearing as they age. The most common problem as one grows older is that the ear loses the ability to differentiate between important sounds and background noise.

Hearing impairment is often mistaken for mental illness, whether the sufferer is a senior citizen or not. Hearing helps us, more than any other sense, to interact with people.

Deafness, or even slight hearing impairment, can lead the affected individual to answer questions inappropriately or act oddly in social situations. These behaviors often lead ignorant observers to label hard-of-hearing seniors senile.

As a result, people with hearing problems are especially cut off from the very stimuli they need to stay mentally acute — a vicious cycle that can lead to further problems.

Of course, hearing aids and/or other medical treatments can correct hearing loss. However, it is also important that friends and family strive to fully include the hard-of-hearing senior in every conversation.

The National Institute of Aging offers a few tips for conversing with the hearing-impaired:

*Speak slightly louder than normal, at a normal rate, but not too fast. Don't shout or overarticulate; this distorts the sound of your voice and makes hearing more difficult.

*Don't speak directly at the listener's ear. This robs him or her of visual cues needed for conversation. Speak from a distance of three to six feet so your gestures can be seen clearly. Don't chew or cover your mouth while speaking.

*Arrange furniture to ensure that nobody is sitting more than six feet apart from the rest of the group.

*Repeat what you've said if the listener doesn't understand. You might want to rephrase your thoughts in shorter sentences.

*Treat the hearing-impaired individual with respect.

Though 44 percent of Americans older than 60 retain none of their natural teeth, most experts say tooth loss is preventable.

The major villain is plaque, that nasty film that leads to tooth decay. Since many older adults grew up without fluoridated water, they are more vulnerable to cavities, especially near where they have previous fillings.

If left unchecked, plaque gets under the gum and leads to periodontal disease, which is the leading cause of tooth loss. The warning signs include loose teeth; red, swollen and/or bleeding gums; gums that pull away from your teeth and bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth.

The best cure for periodontal disease is prevention. Experts suggest you brush twice a day with a good fluoride toothpaste, and floss at least once daily to stem gum disease.

Older adults often experience an unpleasant dryness in the mouth, an underproduction of saliva. If you suffer from a dry mouth, see your dentist or physician, who might prescribe an artificial saliva or mouthwash.