Aging greatly affects the function of the ears, nose, and throat. The effects of aging result from many factors such as wear and tear, noise, and the cumulative effect of infections, as well as the effect of substances such as drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.
A progressive loss of hearing, especially for higher-pitched sounds, is common (presbycusis). This change can alter a person's ability to understand speech. Vestibular imbalance and ringing in the ears (tinnitus) are also more common among older people but are not normal. Changes occur because some structures in the ear that help with hearing or balance deteriorate slightly. Hearing aids can help people with hearing loss hear better.
The sense of smell may decline with age, making tastes less distinct. Changes in the voice also occur with age. The tissues in the larynx may stiffen, affecting the pitch and quality of the voice and causing hoarseness. Changes in the tissues of the throat (pharynx) may lead to the leakage of food or fluids into the trachea during swallowing (aspiration). If persistent or severe, aspiration may cause pneumonia.
Last full review/revision March 2006 by Harold C. Pillsbury, III, MD; Austin S. Rose, MD