My dad is the hardest working person I know. At the ripe old age of 76 he spends the majority of each day on his feet—mowing the lawn, vacuuming, walking the dog, wandering up and down the aisles of the grocery store. He’s so active, in fact, that I often forget how old he really is, which means I also forget to look out for the health decline that comes with old age.

While he’s a super young 76 and generally healthy, it’s important that I at least look out for changes in the five senses—vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch—as the decline in any of these areas can predict a sum of poor health outcomes, says a new study “Global Sensory Impairment Predicts Morbidity and Mortality in Older U.S. Adults” conducted at the University of Chicago.

In order to make this discovery, the research team first evaluated how sensory impairment affected adults aged between 57 and 85, particularly their physical and cognitive abilities. They found that adults with worse sensory impairment moved slower and had more trouble performing everyday activities. And five years later, at the 5-year mark of the study, these very individuals had even worse sensory impairment, moved even slower, were less active overall, had more physical and cognitive disabilities, and had a higher risk of dying.

“This is the first study to show that decreased sensory function of all five senses can be a significant predictor of major health outcomes,” said Martha McClintock, PhD, a lead contributor to the study and the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. While a previous study focused on the decline of smell as a predictor of death, this research team is the first one to find that each of the senses plays a big role in predicting future health.

Moving forward, the team is excited to observe how another five years affect the study’s participants because it will further reveal the role sensory impairment plays in predicting our health. And if the effects prove to be even greater at the 10-year mark than the 5-year mark, the team can be even surer that this impairment is a sign of declining health in older adults.

“There appears to be one or more specific physiological processes of aging—so far unidentified—that account for how the five senses decline together,” says Jayant Pinto, MD, professor of surgery at the University of Chicago and leader of the research team. “The main mechanisms of aging could be inflammation, the lack of cellular regeneration, and/or other things. But here we show that sensory function of all five senses is depending on some common mechanism, and this mechanism is predictive of getting sick,” adds McClintock.

The research team notes that studies of this kind have the potential to “influence health policy and also give physicians a valid tool to predict and treat a wide range of illnesses.” But first, people need to pay better attention to the functioning of their senses, as we’re just not very good at sensing how well are senses are working. Fortunately, however, advancements in technology are getting closer and closer to allowing people to test their senses using websites and/or apps. In fact, this very research team is working on their own app that will test one’s sense of smell.

My dad hates to go to the doctor; he refuses, unless he’s in a significant amount of pain or genuinely concerned about his health. This leaves the rest of us—his 7 kids—worrying about our strong, but somewhat fragile dad. However, this discovery that emerged from this study will allow us to better monitor his health and pick up on any potential issues with a simple evaluation of his vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

Source: University of Chicago Medical Center “Sensory Loss Can Be a Warning Sign of Poor Health Outcomes, Including Death.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 5 October 2017.

Original Research: Abstract for “Global Sensory Impairment Predicts Morbidity and Mortality in Older U.S. Adults” by Jayant M. Pinto MD, Kristen E. Wroblewski MS, Megan Huisingh-Scheetz MD, MPH, Camil Correia MD, Kevin J. Lopez BS, Rachel C. Chen MD, David W. Kern PhD, Philip L. Schumm MA, William Dale MD, PhD, and Martha K. McClintock PhD in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Published online September 24 2017 doi:10.1111/jgs.15031