How Taste and Smell Change Due to Aging
Age-Related Changes to Taste and Smell Is a Common Occurrence
The taste of food and drink is one of life's daily pleasures. Those tiny taste buds found on the tongue brings satisfaction and enjoyment to all. From the time we are babies through adulthood and into old age, we rely on taste for nutrition, energy, hydration and even celebration.
How would you feel if you could no longer taste your favorite food? What if that double scoop of chocolate fudge ice cream was devoid of chocolate flavor? Perhaps you've experienced not being able to taste food when you've had a bad cold or flu. Nothing really appeals to you because you have no sense of taste. You can't really smell anything, either.
But because you realize this is only temporary, you tell yourself it's okay. Soon you will have your sense of taste and smell back. Lucky you, because our aging seniors have to live with this disorder for the rest of their lives. This happens when taste buds die.
This article will explain how the aging process changes the anatomy and physiology of the senses. You will be amazed and surprised by what you learn here. And you'll develop a whole new appreciation for what you now take for granted—being able to taste and smell.
Let's begin with an introduction to taste buds and their function.
Take a look at the picture below to discover where your own taste buds are located. Notice that certain areas apply to sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes.
The Tongue and Taste Buds Positioning
Taste Buds and How They Work
The four basic tastes are Sweet, Sour, Salty and Bitter.
We can thank our taste buds for making food taste so good. They are located on the tongue and allow us to tell the difference between sweet, salty, sour and even bitter.
These taste buds have very sensitive hairs and are so small they can only be seen through a microscope. It's through these tiny hairs that messages are sent to the brain about how something tastes.
We have roughly 10,000 taste buds. Did you know that these taste buds are actually replaced about every two weeks?
Each one of these taste buds are made up of about 50-150 receptor cells. These cells only live for 1 or 2 weeks and then they are replaced by new receptor cells.
But these taste buds get some help from your nose as well. The nose contains receptors (Olfactory) that help messages get to the brain. They help you to be able to smell food which then helps to taste food.
Which of the four basic tastes do you like the best? I personally prefer sweet and salty. My daughter likes sour and my son goes nuts for bitter.
Loss of Taste and Smell Can be Age Related
What Happened to the Taste of Ice Cream?
I'm at the age where I'm beginning to notice a slight change in my taste buds, and I don't like it one bit. The first time I realized my taste was changing was with one of my favorite foods - ice cream.
I quickly blamed the loss of flavor on the ice cream company. But after trying a few different brands I sadly came to the conclusion that the fault lay with my aging taste buds, and not the ice cream manufacturers.
Aging And The Loss of Taste And Smell
As we age, we can expect a variety of changes to occur. We know that wrinkles will appear along with gray hair and we're not quite as "quick on our feet" as we used to be. The heart may become a little slower or bigger even with daily exercise and muscles lose their strength and flexibility.
As much as these changes may bother us, most of the time we can do something about it. We can always take care of a few wrinkles by having a little "work done" and gray hair can easily be dyed. With a change in diet and adding more exercise we can have a healthier heart. And we all know that the right type of stretching will give us more flexibility.
But the two changes that we can do little-to-nothing about are the loss of taste and smell. These natural changes occur for many of us slowly after we hit 60 and we barely notice it.
According to Encyclopedia.com, the reason we don't notice these changes are because" a progressive decline begins as early as thirty or forty years of age and continues gradually in later life."
With this very slow progression of sensory losses, an older person may not even be aware that a decline in taste or smell has occurred. Reaching for the salt shaker becomes automatic as the ability to taste subsides. And over-salting can be dangerous for seniors.
When food doesn't taste the same as it once did, we tend to eat less and malnutrition can become a problem.
Loss of Taste and Smell Graph
Causes of Taste Dysfunction and Disorders
Not all taste loss is due to aging. Here are a few other causes that can interfere with taste:
- Smell dysfunction (defect in olfaction)
- Drug Use
- Previous upper respiratory infection
- Reduction in saliva. For food to have a taste it must be dissolved in water. Saliva acts as water giving us the taste we need.
- Influenza‐like infections
- Head injury
- Neurological damage (Alzheimer's disease, Epilepsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Tumors and lesions
- Chewing problems associated with dentures or loss of teeth
- Appetite suppressants
- Vitamin B3 (niacin) deficiency
- Deficiency of zinc
- Acute viral hepatitis
I was diagnosed with Hypothyroidism (thyroid deficiency,) and noticed a decline in my taste after about a year. My Doctor confirmed that you can lose your taste for food with this deficiency. Other causes are:
- Anxiety disorder
- Liver failure
- Renal failure
- Radiation therapy
- Tobacco use
- Alzheimer's disease
- Sinusitis and polyposis
- Allergic rhinitis, atopy, and bronchial asthma
Always report your symptoms to your Doctor. This will relieve stress and help find the cause.
Cell Biology of Taste
Loss of Smell is Called Anosmia
Causes of Anosmia (Loss of Smell)
The Mayo Clinic defines Anosmia as -
"Loss of smell — anosmia (an-OHZ-me-uh) — can be partial or complete, although a complete loss of smell is fairly rare. Loss of smell can also be temporary or permanent, depending on the cause."
A loss of smell can cause a loss of interest in eating which can lead to malnutrition, weight loss and depression. It can also be dangerous because it hinders the ability to smell a gas leakage in the house.
According to Wikipedia, "Anosmia is due to an inflammation of the nasal mucosa; blockage of nasal passages or a destruction of one temporal lobe."
As you look at the list of causes that can be the culprit for losing your ability to smell, common sense dictates that each case can be different. Loss of smell can be a temporary thing and leave as quickly as it began.
- Anosmia can be an early sign of Parkinson's disease
- Brain injury
- Cocaine abuse
- Injury to the nose and the smell nerves
- Infection/blocked nose
- Alzheimer's disease
- Certain types of nasal spray
- Nasal polyps
- Upper respiratory tract infection
- Certain medications ( antibiotics, antidepressants, heart medications, anti-inflammatory medications and others
- Toxins/chemicals such as pesticides or solvents
- Zinc deficiency
- Bell's Palsy
- Neurotropic virus
- Old Age
Seniors Need Stronger Tasting Food
Did you know that your taste buds age just like everything else in your body? Take a look at these statistics given by Assisted Living Facilities.org:
- Adults have over 6,000 taste buds
- Elderly have 2,000 - 3,000 taste buds
Is it any wonder that our seniors lose their taste for food? It's too bad we can't replace those dead taste buds. But there's something we can do to enhance the taste of food. We simply have to add more seasoning.
Go light on the salt and use more garlic, cayenne pepper, rosemary and other tasteful herbs such as cinnamon, turmeric, basil and oregano.
Squeeze an extra lemon when you make lemonade and be sure that fruits are nice and ripe before serving.
By taking these extra precautions, the elderly will begin to enjoy their regular favorite foods once again and life will be sweeter.
Key Points to Remember
You won't remember everything that you've read here so I'm giving you some points to take away:
- Older people lose their taste and smell.
- Losing the ability to smell means the taste is gone too.
- Many other causes interfere with taste and smell other than aging.
- Encourage the elderly to eat foods packed with good nutrition.
- Malnutrition runs high in older people because they can't taste their food.
- Losing taste and smell begins declining at about age 30.
- Seniors rarely recognize that they don't taste food as they did when they were younger.
Loss of Taste and Smell
Summing It Up
Smell and taste play an important role in enjoyment and in safety. Being able to smell and taste also allows you to detect danger such as leaking gas, spoiled food and smoke.
As you age your mouth produces less saliva, which causes dry mouth and thereby affects your sense of taste. Loss of nerve endings in the nose cause less mucus which helps odors to linger long enough to detect smell.
Some things to remember:
- Most changes in the perception of food flavor result from the loss of smell. The nose contains receptors (Olfactory) which send messages to the brain.
- As we age, our taste buds die resulting in loss of taste. There are 4 taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
- Nothing can be done about losing the sense of smell and taste due to aging.
- Use more spices and herbs to bring out the taste of food.
- The elderly are at high risk for malnutrition. Encourage them to eat more fruits, vegetables and protein along with healthy grains. They made sure we ate well as children and now we must do the same for them. Always be loving and caring. And a little humor goes a long way.
- There are many other causes for losing taste and smell. If yours has diminished see your health care provider.
If you experience a loss of smell that you can't attribute to a cold or allergy or which doesn't get better after a week or two, tell your doctor.
Presently there is no treatment for loss of taste and smell for the elderly.
In closing I would like to share my favorite quote from actress Sophia Loren:
“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”
Thank you for being here. I invite you to share your thoughts and suggestions in the comment section below.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2013 Audrey Hunt