Have you noticed the foods you eat don’t quite taste the same as they used to? Maybe your meal tastes bland or your favorite snack isn’t as delicious as you remember. You might be experiencing a common part of the natural aging process. As we get older our sense of taste changes. So, why does this happen?
Taste Buds and Aging
Sense of taste, also called the gustatory system, is largely controlled by taste buds — tiny organs located on the tongue, roof of the mouth, in the esophagus and back of the throat. Each taste bud contains receptor cells that are responsible for reporting the sense of taste to the brain. Taste buds receive the signal from tiny molecules that are released when chewing, drinking or digesting. It’s how we experience the five types of taste: bitter, salty, sour, sweet and “umami” (savory).
It’s estimated that we have about 10,000 taste buds at birth, but the number of buds decreases with time. Taste buds regenerate quickly when we are younger, but over time they don’t reproduce as quickly, or at all. Remaining taste buds shrink as we get older too, resulting in diminished sense of taste. Typically, seniors notice this loss of taste with salty or sweet foods first.
The Smell-Taste Connection
Loss of taste isn’t the only sense that can dull with age; smell can diminish as well. In fact, the two are closely related.
Sense of smell is controlled by the olfactory system. Those same molecules that signal taste to the brain also signal the olfactory nerves. Olfactory nerves are responsible for what you smell and how you perceive food’s texture, temperature, spiciness and flavor. Take the nasal congestion common with colds as an example. Your food might taste different when you have a cold because you can’t smell it as well.
Just like taste buds decrease with age, so do the olfactory fibers in the nose. The remaining fibers aren’t as strong, especially for seniors older than 60.
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Loss of taste and smell is considered a normal part of aging, but there are other causes:
- Viral infections: The common cold, flu and COVID-19 can cause a temporary diminished sense of smell and taste.
- Medications: Certain medications, both prescription and over-the-counter medicines, can alter the senses, especially antibiotics and blood pressure medications. Speak with your doctor before stopping or changing your medications.
- Dental problems: Gum disease, a tooth abscess, thrush or dry mouth can affect sense of taste.
- Smoking: The toxic chemicals in cigarettes interact with your tongue in such a way that the taste buds lose their shape and become flatter.
- Head or facial injuries: Trauma to the head, neck or brain can damage the olfactory nerves that signal scents to your brain.
- Nasal polyps: These soft, noncancerous growths on the lining of your nasal passages or sinuses can impact your senses.
- Cancer treatment: Some types of cancer and cancer treatments can alter the signals between your nose, mouth and brain.
- Vitamin deficiencies: Loss of taste and smell could be a sign that your body is low on certain vitamins.
The Effects of Losing Sense of Taste
The loss of taste can have a negative impact on quality of life and lead to other health complications.
“It makes it difficult for people to eat well and have an adequate diet,” explained Madeline Kolpin, a registered dietitian at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Jacksonville. “Bitterness might be more apparent to those with impaired taste and sweet or salty flavors might be harder to detect. Many older adults show a preference for very sweet or salty foods because of dulled taste which can lead to an imbalanced eating pattern.”
You might lose your appetite and eat less, resulting in poor nutrition, vitamin deficiencies and weight loss. Changes to the sense of taste might also tempt you to add excess salt and sugar to foods to enhance flavor. “Be mindful of salt/sugar being added to foods,” warned Kolpin. Excess salt and sugar can lead to or worsen health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
You might also not be able to detect if food or liquid is spoiled or if it contains ingredients you’re allergic to.
Is it Treatable?
That depends. Unlike those gray hairs or wrinkles under your eyes, if changes to taste and smell are age-related, it’s not possible to reverse those changes.
However, if your reduced senses are a result of other causes, it might be only temporary or treatable. For example, impaired senses caused by a cold can be improved with nasal spray while you wait for the cold to clear up. Or if medication is the culprit, your doctor might consider adjusting prescriptions. Speak with your doctor about changes to your sense of taste and smell to determine the root cause and explore possible treatment options.
Coping with Loss of Taste
If your sense of taste has weakened, there are ways to make your food more palatable without reaching for the salt or sugar. Daria Zajac, a dietitian at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Institute of Libertyville, recommends these tips to her patients.
“Instead of reaching for the salt shaker, try reaching for Mrs. Dash or a variety of herbs and seasonings like sage, thyme, rosemary. Even adding a splash of lemon or lime juice can give food some pizzazz and moisture without overpowering a meal.” Other herbs and spices you can add to bring out food’s flavor include basil, oregano, rosemary, cilantro and tarragon. Feeling more adventurous? Add spices like black pepper, chili pepper, cinnamon, cumin, garlic powder and ginger to enhance flavor.
When it comes to livening up your meals, it isn’t just the food that matters. “Lonely mealtimes can be daunting,” Zajac said. If you can, make meals more social by cooking and eating with friends and family members.
Temperature can also factor into taste. For example, you might find chilled or frozen foods to be more appetizing than hot foods or the other way around. Play around with temperature. You could incorporate foods like yogurt or frozen fruits, or warm up leftovers to room temperature instead of piping hot.