If you can imagine the tickling of grass under your feet, a hug from a loved one or the warmth of a crackling fireplace, you know how things feel on your skin.
Most of us don't give it a second thought, but our sense of touch is an important part of our lives. As we grow older, though, our ability to perceive touch can change or even fade.
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While this is usually a normal part of aging, a reduced sense of touch can sometimes mean something more serious is going on.
Here, Benjamin Emanuel, DO, associate professor of neurology at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, explains why your sense of touch may change with age and what you can do preserve your tactile sensation as an older adult.
Why Sense of Touch Is Important
We rely on our sense of touch to gather information about the world around us.
Our skin (the largest organ in our bodies) has many nerve endings that perceive things like pain, temperature, pressure, vibration and body position, according to the National Library of Medicine. Our brain then translates these sensations as something pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
When your sense of touch is impaired, it can interfere with the way you detect things like pain, temperature or pressure, which can become potentially harmful to your health.
Here are just a few examples of how a weakened sense of touch can put you at risk, per the National Library of Medicine:
- A decreased temperature sensitivity can make it difficult to tell the difference between cool, cold, hot and warm, which can increase your risk of injury from frostbite, hypothermia and burns.
- A reduced ability to detect vibration, touch and pressure increases your risk of injuries, including pressure ulcers (skin sores that develop when pressure cuts off blood supply to the area).
- A reduced sensitivity to pain may fail to alert you to an injury or mislead you into thinking the injury isn't serious.
- A reduced ability to perceive your body position may produce problems with walking (because you can't sense where your body is in relation to the floor), which increases your risk of falling.
Even activities we don't think much about (like using a utensil to eat, for example) involve a high level of tactile processing, according to the British Psychological Society.
Our ability to touch is also often an important part of social connection, as it deepens our relationships with others and contributes to our overall wellbeing, per the British Psychological Society.
Why Your Sense of Touch May Change With Age
Here are a few reasons why your sense of touch may change or fade as you age:
1. You Have an Underlying Medical Problem
Aging comes with a greater chance you'll develop certain health issues, some of which may mess with your sense of touch.
"Chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol affect the integrity of the [blood] vessels," Dr. Emanuel says. "They become hard and filled with plaque, which decreases blood flow over time."
With less blood flowing to your nerve endings, your ability to sense touch is weakened.
2. You Have Diminished Blood Flow
As you age, the blood flow to your brain decreases over time, according to the Harvard Brain Science Initiative. Problem is, your brain is in charge of receiving and interpreting nerve signals from your spinal cord, per the National Library of Medicine.
When your brain doesn't get the oxygen and nutrients it needs from blood, it won't be able to read those nerve signals properly, which can affect your sensory perception, i.e., your sense of touch. Certain medical conditions, as we've mentioned above, can worsen this problem.
"Conditions like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol affect small penetrating blood vessels and capillaries that feed your spinal cord or, more commonly, feed your peripheral nerves, which are responsible for your sense of touch," Dr. Emanuel says.
3. You Have a Nutrient Deficiency
Believe it or not, what you eat (or in this case, what you don't eat) can affect your sense of touch.
Certain nutrients like vitamin B1, B6, B12, copper and vitamin E are necessary for healthy nerves, according to the Mayo Clinic. When you don't get enough of each, your nerves won't have what they need to work properly.
"Poor nutrition can affect the strength of your blood vessels and/or the strength of your nerves over time," Dr. Emanuel says.
Indeed, some vitamin deficiencies can seriously damage your peripheral nerves — a condition known as peripheral neuropathy, per The University of Chicago.
Your peripheral nerves (i.e., nerves located outside of your brain and spinal cord) transmit information to your central nervous system via sensory nerves (which are responsible for things like temperature, pain, vibration or touch), per the Mayo Clinic.
When your peripheral nerves are damaged, your sense of touch might change, too. Other signs of peripheral neuropathy include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Numbness, prickling or tingling in your feet or hands
- Sharp, jabbing, throbbing or burning pain
- Extreme sensitivity to touch
- Feeling as if you're wearing gloves or socks when you're not
While anyone can have a nutrient deficiency, older folks are more susceptible for several reasons. For one, aging results in a slower metabolism. This means your body requires less energy and fewer calories (i.e., less food and therefore less vitamins and minerals entering your system).
On top of this, older adults may have a reduced appetite thanks to physiological changes associated with aging, including changes in hormones, sense of smell, taste and vision and the digestive system, according to a June 2015 paper in Nursing Older People.
Another cause of nutrient deficiency in older adults is medication, as certain kinds can change how your body absorbs and metabolizes nutrients, per Oklahoma State University.
All these factors can affect the amount of food you eat and/or the amount of essential nutrients you get through food and vitamins, therefore affecting the health of your nerves.
4. You’ve Had a Stroke
"If you've had a stroke, it can affect the part of your brain that's connected to sensation receptors in a specific part of your body," Dr. Emanuel says. This can interfere with your sense of touch.
A stroke happens when blood flow to the brain is blocked (known as an ischemic stroke) or when there's sudden bleeding in the brain (known as a hemorrhagic stroke), according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). And as we've learned, reduced blood flow to your brain and nerves can interfere with your tactile perception.
Strokes are more common in older people. In fact, your likelihood of having a stroke nearly doubles every decade after you reach the age of 55, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Diseases like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol (and others common in older adults) increase your odds of having a stroke. They "affect the small arteries penetrating your brain, which can lead to strokes over time," Dr. Emanuel says.
Along with a change in sense of touch, strokes can cause a wide range of symptoms. But keep in mind that sometimes, strokes may not have symptoms at all, Dr. Emanuel says. Some common signs of stroke include the following, per the NHLBI:
- Mild weakness, paralysis or numbness on one side of the face or body
- Sudden and severe headache
- Trouble seeing
- Trouble speaking or understanding speech
If you think you may be having a stroke, call 911 and/or go to the nearest emergency room immediately. Catching a stroke early can lower your odds of brain damage and other side effects, per the NHLBI.
5. You Have Nerve Damage From an Injury
An injury to any part of your body can also affect your sense of touch.
Your nerves are delicate and can be damaged by pressure, stretching or cutting, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). They can also be injured by long-term exposure to vibration, such as by vibrating hand tools (a condition known as vibration syndrome), according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
If a nerve-damaging injury happens, signals to and from the brain may stop, leading to a loss of feeling or numbness.
In other words, if a damaged sensory nerve is not working, it can't send a signal to your brain about pain, temperature or pressure, so you won't feel anything, Dr. Emanuel says.
On the other hand, some injuries can cause nerve damage that produces pain (like a pinched nerve in your spine, for example), per the AAOS.
How to Stay Healthy as Your Sense of Touch Changes
While you can't always control a reduced sense of touch, there are things you can do to prevent it from getting worse. These include:
1. Treat the Underlying Cause
When it comes to addressing loss of touch, "usually, it's about managing the underlying risk factor that's causing it," Dr. Emanuel says. "So, if you have high blood pressure, take your medicine. If you have diabetes, regulate your blood sugar levels and tweak your diet. If you have high cholesterol, watch your cholesterol intake."
While you may not always be able to prevent underlying issues from happening, managing your conditions can certainly lower your risk of them affecting or damaging your nerves.
2. Get Regular Exercise
Not only does physical activity build muscle, but working out also does wonders for your brain. And a healthy brain can protect (or possibly prevent) a loss of touch.
"Exercise is very good for the brain and nerves," Dr. Emanuel says. On a physiological level, regular exercise supports cardiovascular health and improves blood flow to your brain, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
As we've learned, many tactile issues happen because of a lack of blood blow to the brain. So any activity that promotes blood circulation is helpful.
Exercise also reduces inflammation and stress. Chronic inflammation and high levels of stress can contribute to the development of chronic illnesses like heart disease, which are known risk factors for a loss of touch.
Plus, physical activity improves neuroplasticity (i.e., the capacity to form new neural connections), per the Cleveland Clinic.
For the biggest brain benefits, make sure to incorporate aerobic exercise (like running, biking, swimming or dancing) into your weekly routine because these forms of physical activity really get the heart pumping, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Aim for 15 minutes of high-intensity, vigorous exercise three days per week or 30 minutes of moderate activity five days per week, per the Cleveland Clinic.
3. Practice Safety Measures
If you already know your sense of touch has faded, you could be at a greater risk of getting injured. You may not feel the pain of scalding water, for example, which could lead to burns.
The following tips can help you stay safe, per the National Library of Medicine:
- Lower the water heater temperature to no higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) to avoid burns.
- Check the thermometer to decide how to dress, rather than waiting until you feel overheated or chilled.
- Inspect your skin, especially your feet, for injuries and treat them (do not assume an injury is not serious because the area is not painful).
When to See a Doctor
Oftentimes, a fading sense of touch is a normal part of aging and something to keep in mind as you move through your daily activities.
But because a loss of touch can be a symptom of a more serious issue, it's best to call your doctor as soon as you notice any major changes, (like not being able to feel hot or cold items, for instance), Dr. Emanuel says.
Your doctor can help find the underlying issue and come up with a treatment plan based on your needs.
- National Library of Medicine: “Aging changes in the senses”
- British Psychological Society: “Living with touch”
- Harvard Brain Science Initiative: “How Aging Affects Blood Flow to the Brain”
- Mayo Clinic: “Peripheral Neuropathy”
- Nursing Older People: “An overview of appetite decline in older people”
- Oklahoma State University: “Drug – Nutrient Interactions”
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “What Is a Stroke?”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Know Your Risk for Stroke”
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Nerve Injuries in the Hand and Fingers”
- Cleveland Clinic: “How Exercise Protects Your Brain’s Health”
- University of Chicago, Department of Neurology: "Peripheral Neuropathy"
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: "Vibration Syndrome"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.