When we touch something, the nerves in the fingers send impulses to the brain that instantly identifies the sensation – whether it is hot or cold, soft or hard. As we age, however, our sense of touch becomes less sensitive.
These changes can be related to a variety of things including decreased blood flow to the nerve endings or to the spinal cord or brain. The spinal cord transmits nerve signals and the brain interprets the signals.
Health problems can also cause sensation changes. Brain surgery, problems in the brain, confusion, nerve damage from injury or chronic diseases such diabetes can also result in changes in sensation. The skin also gets thicker as we age, causing a reduction in feeling.
With decreased temperature sensitivity, it can be hard to tell the difference between cool and cold and between hot and warm. This can increase the risk of injury from frostbite, hypothermia, and burns.
Reduced ability to detect vibration, touch, and pressure increases the risk of injuries. After age 50, many people have reduced sensitivity to pain. People may feel and recognize pain, but it does not bother them.
Some people may develop problems with walking because of reduced ability to perceive where their body is in relation to the floor. This increases the risk of falling, a common problem for older people.
If you are having symptoms of changes in touch, pain, or problems standing or walking, talk with your health care provider.