By Stephanie Abramson
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When it comes to babies, we pay a lot of attention to the five senses. Colorful mobiles, famous composers' lullabies, foods introduced in a certain order, the bunny to pat. But when was the last time you stopped and smelled the roses? Gave yourself a taste treat? Or took a moment to truly appreciate the feel of your fur-lined boots as you pull them on?
Sure, you're happy you can still spy that last empty cab during rush hour and react fast enough to a horn blast to swerve back into your own lane. But what about the mailman with Paul Newman-blue eyes? Noticed him lately? Or the church bells that play at noon? The freesias at the front desk?
The truth is, when it comes to our senses, we have no sense. We bolt our food, blast our iPods, freeze our feet, have to be reminded to breathe, and generally can't see the forest for the trees. Add environmental and age-related factors, and it's no wonder that "differentiating and distinguishing sounds, sights, flavors, tastes, and touches becomes more challenging every day," says Robert Butler, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of the International Longevity Center-USA. It's time to change all that with our sense-stimulating tricks and treats. Here's how to celebrate your senses -- and be healthier for it.
A friend laughing. Water lapping against the shore. The mellifluous harp notes in perfect sync with your sister's steps down the aisle. You can hear all those lovely sounds (and the less-pleasant -- but helpful -- screech of a car tire or rumble of thunder) thanks to a bunch of little hair cells in your inner ear. Each ear has about 15,000 of them, and they're responsible for transmitting sounds to your brain to be processed. But thanks to age and exposure to loud noise (yes, we're talking to you, the person whose iPod is so loud we can hear it from here), you're losing your (ear) hair. And that could be the precursor to hearing loss.
"As we get older, those disappearing hair cells affect our ability to distinguish high-pitched sounds, including consonants such as s, t, and f," says Marjorie R. Leek, Ph.D., of the National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research in Portland, Oregon. In fact, about 30 percent of baby boomers have already suffered hearing loss. But you don't have to be one of them. Here's how.
Train your ears. You can exercise and stimulate your hearing by listening to different kinds of music. Add jazz or blues to your classical repertoire. Concentrate on what you're hearing and try to identify the different melodies or single out the different instruments.
Turn it down. Normal conversation is about 60 decibels. A portable music player with the volume at one-quarter is 85 decibels; at full volume it's 120 decibels. Enough said.
Muffle it. When you can't avoid noise exceeding 85 decibels (a subway train is 90 decibels, for example), wear earplugs or earmuffs (which can cut 15 to 30 decibels). In a pinch, donning a hat or sticking your fingers in your ears is better than nothing.
Cashmere socks tickling your toes. A child's arms around your neck. A snowflake on your tongue. "The sensation of touch affects every part of our bodies," says Steven Hsiao, Ph.D., associate neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins University. Without it, we'd have a lot less fun (hot-stone massage) and be a lot less safe (hot pan!).
Women, who typically have thinner skin than men, are lucky enough to have stronger touch sensations. But we all lose our sense of touch as we age, about 1 percent a year beginning in our 20s, Hsiao says. The good news is that the outmost layer of the epidermis is renewed continuously, and there are lots of pleasurable ways to rev up those touch receptors.
Keep it soft. The rougher your skin, the more difficult it is to sense touch. So slather on a rich cream or lotion to keep your nerve endings moist and firing.
Pat your own bunny. The areas in your brain involved in touch enlarge when exposed to new sensations. To stimulate them, try choosing your clothes by feel. You'll notice the nap of a pair of corduroys, those nubby socks, your favorite silk shirt. Celebrate the textures of the foods, too: An avocado's rough skin, silky tofu, the stickiness of a licorice string.
Get skin-to-skin. Studies show that holding hands with a partner relaxes a woman. So, too, can any kind of skin-to-skin contact such as massage, acupressure, even a lunchtime pedicure or manicure.
Your friend crosses the finish line first. A smiling child blows out her birthday candles. The sun sets in the Smoky Mountains. Fully 70 percent of the sensory info that defines our world is visual. The images we see help construct setting, mood, and memory. As with all our senses, what we see can insulate us from harm (train coming) and envelop us with delight (that fabulous Judith Leiber clutch that's been calling your name).
To keep those images in clear focus, you know the drill: Wear sunglasses, eat right, and don't smoke. Unfortunately, aging plays a role in vision loss, too. "For many, by age 40, the ability to see objects close-up becomes distorted," says Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., nutritional scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University. Our eyes also respond more slowly to dim light. The good news is you can protect and perk up your peepers.
Try some eye candy. Foods rich in nutrients, such as green leafy vegetables, fish, and fresh fruit, will keep your eyes healthy.
Rise and shine. Do outdoor activities such as jogging early in the morning, when pollution levels tend to be lower. Always wear your shades. And change your route to give your eyes fresh stimuli.
Go 3-D. The Earth may not be flat, but most of what we look at -- from computers to TV -- is. Give your eyes a 3-D workout: Spend a few minutes with a Magic Eye book. Or look out your window at the layers -- the window blinds, the trees outside, the sky behind the trees. Who knew your life was so deep?
Paint with your eyes. Draw this magazine with your eyes. Go up and around the page, around your hands holding it, the image on your page. Or follow a goldfish as it darts around its bowl. Instant eye exercise!
See more clearly. Just a few minutes of resting your eyes can have a big impact on how well you see. Cover your open eyes with your palms until you can see only darkness. When you take your hands away, your world will be brighter and crisper.
Thanks to nimble noses, babies know the scent of their mothers at birth, food tastes a lot better, and the mere act of sniffing men's sweat relaxes us (and may make us more fertile). Our sense of smell also keeps us safe from everything from fire (is that smoke I smell?) to spoiled food (sour milk -- eww).
Smell also plays a key role in mood and memory. Just getting a whiff of Granny's chicken soup or a steaming cup of hot chocolate can immediately evoke an emotion or an image from our past. That's because, more than any other sense, the sense of smell is irrational.
"A smell affects us emotionally," says Alan Hirsch, M.D., neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. "When we detect an odor in the air, we decide if we like it before we even identify it. You can be going about your day one moment, and the next moment, be on the verge of tears -- all because of a fragrance."
When your sense of smell is at its peak, you have about 10 million olfactory receptors, and your nose and brain can distinguish among 10,000 to 30,000 smells. But as we age, "we experience loss of sensitivity and deterioration in our receptors, which are responsible for getting messages to the brain to process smell," says Richard Doty, Ph.D., director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. But a little practice can improve your sense of smell.
Sniff a pick-me-up. When the clock strikes 4, and you start to wane, take a nice whiff of peppermint candy. Scents such as peppermint and cinnamon increase the brain waves in the front of your head, which helps keep you awake and alert. Lemon or eucalyptus in your morning shower gives you the same kind of fragrant wake-up call.
Be different. "By bombarding your nose with a series of different scents for a few minutes each day, you can create new receptors," Hirsch says. Why not try this with wine? Open a few varietals of vino, and breathe deeply. Try to detect the various notes, from sweet to strong. Soothe with scent. Before heading off to bed, relax with scented candles, bubbles, or aromatherapy oils. Try lavender or chamomile in the bath or shower, where the warm water and humidity will increase the volatility of a scent; both herbs inhibit the area of the brain that keeps you awake.
Stop smoking. Cigarette smoke kills off those essential olfactory receptors, whether you're the one smoking or not. Since indoor smoking was banned, there's been a resurgence in our sense of smell.
Lucky us: The brain recognizes five different taste sensations -- sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory -- all located on the 10,000 taste buds scattered on the back, front, and sides of the tongue, and on the palate. Women naturally have a more-developed sense of taste than men (on so many levels). As we age, though, our taste buds experience wear and tear. "We also produce less saliva, which makes it difficult for the brain to recognize taste," Doty says. Fortunately taste cells regenerate about every 10 days. And you can help.
Get intense. Try tasting flavors such as horseradish and dark chocolate, which have more intensely irritant components to them. They may stimulate your taste receptors more quickly. The bitter taste of dark chocolate provides a more powerful flavor burst than white chocolate, and it's healthier for you, too.
Mix it up. Variety is the spice of life. Add curry, rosemary, or cinnamon to your dishes. Taste-test an assortment of apples. Or try combining flavors. In a salad with fruit and nuts, you'll sense sweet, salty, and bitter. If you add a dressing that's got a little kick, you can also get a bit of savory.
Slow down. Chew slowly to enjoy taste. Eating leisurely gives the molecules in any food greater exposure to your olfactory nerves, which increases the intensity and pleasure. And keep your mouth moist, too: Saliva gets those molecules to your taste buds. A stick of gum or a bottle of water will get the juices flowing.
Lighten up. What you consider sweet or salty enough is not hardwired. If you drench your French fries with salt or add 2 heaping tablespoons of sugar to your espresso, cut back. With patience, you can savor the taste of food without overdoing it.
Stephanie Abramson is a reporter for Real Simple.