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How to Sharpen Your Senses

We use all five of our senses - sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch - to perceive and experience the world around us.

Yet, as we age, these senses diminish at varying rates and to different degrees among individuals. We all know that feeling of having a bad taste in our mouth, or the way a stuffy nose makes even the most fragrant garlic pizza taste like cardboard.

A new study by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association found that daily use of blaring MP3 players and cellphones can lead to permanent hearing loss.

Also researchers in Mexico City report that people in urban areas can’t smell strong odors like coffee as well as their brethren in the ‘burbs.

The rest of your senses are also in danger of being dulled. So, here’s how to sustain and sharpen your senses so that every bite (and sniff) tells you what you need to know:


Music can be a mallet banging on your eardrums, or it can be a tool to fine-tune them. The trick is maintaining a sane volume (you should be able to carry on a normal conversation) and regularly singling out and listening to one instrument.

“It will help you perceive more details in everyday sounds,” says Gail Whitelaw, Ph.D., president of the American Academy of Audiology. Think of it as a form of resistance exercise, in which you’re training a weak body part.

One glass of red wine may not get you drunk, but it does go to your head. Or, more specifically, to your ears. Researchers with the Henry Ford Health System found that when rats were given resveratrol, the wonder chemical in red wine, they had a 50 percent reduction in noise-induced hearing damage. “We’re confident this is just as effective in humans,” says Michael Seidman, M.D., the lead author.


Like your tolerance for Johnny Knoxville films, “your sense of smell deteriorates with age,” says Alan Hirsch, M.D., neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, in Chicago. “By the time you’re 65, your ability will be reduced by half.”

You can dodge this decline by taking a deep whiff of a specific, pleasurable smell every day, whether it’s your partner’s perfume or a pepperoni pizza. “When you do this consistently over a few months, it will cause your body to create new scent receptors,” says Dr. Hirsch.

Speak and smell. Putting words to a scent can supercharge your nose. “Identifying and describing an odor enhances your ability to smell it,” says Beverly Cowart, Ph.D., director of the Monell-Jefferson Taste and Smell Clinic, in Philadelphia.

When researchers at Wayne State University asked people to smell T-shirts worn by family members, they identified who had worn which shirt just by sniffing it and describing the scent. Practice this trick with the edible - “Honey, your sauce has a sweet, garlicky aroma” - and the offensive - “Dude, your sweat has a rotting onion stench.”


Unless there’s a hot-dog-shaped trophy at stake, stop scarfing down your food. “Thorough chewing unlocks more flavor molecules,” says Dr. Hirsch. “And holding the food in your mouth ensures that those molecules will make contact with both the tastebuds and nasal cavity.” This doesn’t mean stowing your food like chewing tobacco - just wait a few seconds before letting it slide down your gullet.

Your tongue has been burnt, bitten, and tied, but the worst abuse may be the flavor flogging. Give all 10,000 of your tastebuds a break by abstaining from salty, sweet, sour, or bitter foods - whichever taste you can’t get enough of - for 2 weeks.

“When you don’t eat a flavor for a while, your receptors for that flavor are rejuvenated,” says Dr. Hirsch.


Long stretches of working at a computer, driving a car, or ogling the models on Deal or No Deal can exacerbate eye dryness, the number-one cause of blurry vision. Fortunately, your body comes with a high-tech rehydration system.

“Take ‘blinking breaks’ throughout the day - blinks work like windshield wipers, clearing up the surface of the eye and encouraging tear production,” says Ernest Kornmehl, M.D., a professor of ophthalmology at Harvard medical school. Train yourself to blink every time you perform a frequent action, such as clicking your mouse or flicking your turn signal.

If your eyes could talk… you’d be a circus freak. And in between shows, they’d tell you to fortify them with B vitamins. New USDA research found that people with high intakes of the B vitamins riboflavin and thiamin had the least clouding of their eyes’ lenses, the most direct measure of cataract risk. Increase your intake with a daily multivitamin containing your quota of B1 (thiamin) and B2 (riboflavin). And if you miss a day, grab some trail mix that contains nuts, seeds, and M&Ms to replenish both vitamins.


If you usually barehand it when batting, putting, or serving, go gloved for your practice swings. “Placing material between your skin and what you’re gripping will force the receptors to work harder as they try to feel through the barrier,” says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami school of medicine.

Take the gloves off for the game and you’ll get a boost in sensitivity that will give you greater control.

In the wrong hands, skin can be a blunt instrument. “Without regular stimulation, your skin receptors become less sensitive,” says Dr. Field. Sex is one source of stimulation, especially if body oil enters the equation.

But you can also get a hot-stone massage, go for a swim in bracingly cold water, or use a long-handled bristle brush instead of a wimpy washcloth. Then have more sex.

Our sense naturally declines as we age. Fortunately, taking action will lower your risk - and perhaps even put you ahead.



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