Have you noticed your sense of taste changing as you age? It’s not your imagination.
Our perception and appreciation of food and beverages diminishes when we get older. Our ability to discern the difference in the flavors of certain fruits or rices, or the nuances of a glass of wine, dwindles.
That’s the bad news. The good news: This often isn’t necessarily physiology — the vicissitudes of aging — at work. The better news: Steps can be taken to alleviate the problem, according to Dr. Stephen Shuman, a dentistry professor and director of the Oral Health Services for Older Adults Program at the University of Minnesota.
“The research tends to suggest that aging-related pure biological effects [on the palate] are relatively small,” Shuman said. “There is a decrease in density of taste buds and also the thresholds for what people sense, but at the end of the day other problems [are at play].”
Things that Affect Taste
Those other problems range from diseases or injuries to smoking or poor nutrition. Or even medications: Drugs that might remedy an unrelated ailment can cause myriad problems with our sense of taste — the reactions often listed in the “side effects can include …” that dominate TV ads for medications.
Our bodies, after all, are complicated. That’s perhaps nowhere more so than in the mouth, with its 9,000 or so taste buds, and the nose, with hundreds of olfactory receptors detecting countless aromas.
More than 400 drugs on the market list ‘dry mouth’ as a side effect, including medication for diabetics, incontinence and psychiatric problems.
— Dr. Stephen Shuman, University of Minnesota
Flavor, it turns out, has relatively little to do with our physical palates, which are more utilitarian: From an evolutionary standpoint, they tell us whether we ought to swallow or spit out food.
Our mouths perceive just five elements — sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami (glutamate). They also can tell if there’s fat in food, said Dr. Erin O’Brien, a rhinologist in the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Otorhinolaryngology in Rochester, Minn.
“As you chew food, the flavor is released and you smell it through the back of the nose,” O’Brien said. “If you’re eating strawberry ice cream, your tongue will tell you it’s sweet, but it won’t know the flavor. The nose tells you it’s strawberry. That’s the difference between taste and flavor.”
The Nose Knows
Taste buds decline throughout our lives; we start at 30,000 or so as babies and settle in just below 10,000 as young adults. Later, they tend to shrink and/or stop regenerating as we age, especially after age 60. And while we don’t notice that our senses are slipping, we can discern that at some point food begins to taste blander.
A similar process is unfolding in the proboscis, or nose, where some of our hundreds of olfactory receptors, and the nerves that carry aromas to our brains, suffer diminished capacity. Losing the ability to detect particular scents can limit us to just the five simple tastes the tongue recognizes.
“Smell gives us variety and specific information,” said Marcia Pelchat, a longtime researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “That helps explain why most people who say they have lost their sense of taste actually have lost their sense of smell.”
The effects might go beyond dwindling enjoyment of food and extend to the potentially harmful (such as extreme weight loss or overuse of salt or sugar, exacerbating health conditions) to the life-threatening (like unknowingly eating contaminated food or an inability to smell smoke or natural gas in a room).
Either way, Pelchat said, “by time we get to 80, everybody has some degree of decline in smell. But most people don’t complain because it’s a gradual process.”
In both the nose and mouth, moisture plays a major role, for better or worse.
Mucus helps odors stay in the nose long enough to be detected by the nerve endings. That’s often reduced in old age, as is saliva, which makes it harder to digest and swallow foods, but also causes the kind of “dry mouth” that affects taste perceptions.
This problem might not be biological, though, Shuman said. “For years we assumed as people got older, the mouth just got dry. Studies have found that there’s not a natural significant drop in salivary functions,” he said. “Salivary glands do change over time, but it’s not significant compared to illnesses or medication.
“More than 400 drugs on the market list ‘dry mouth’ as a side effect, including medication for diabetes, incontinence and psychiatric problems,” said Shuman, who has a sign in his office that reads, “Spit is spectacular.”
Those suffering from this issue should see if their doctor can adjust their prescriptions, Shuman added. The same goes for those dealing with dental troubles or periodontal diseases, nasal or sinus problems, cholesterol or diabetes, plus medical treatments for cancer and thyroid or neurological conditions.
On top of all that, genetic patterns and environmental factors — basically, what’s in the air around us — affect different individuals at varying times.
“It’s all related to what the underlying cause is,” he said, “but it all can be looked at by dental or medical professionals.”
Those professionals could include another in the burgeoning list of doctor types that boomers and seniors might want to see: an otolaryngologist. Blessedly, they’re also known as ENTs (for ear, nose, and throat).
Smell Tests and More
Away from the doctor’s office, there’s plenty that the 60-plus crowd can do to mitigate a waning ability to appreciate what they consume — and a diminished quality of life and health. To wit:
- Punch it up: Herbs and spices, cheeses, nuts, garlic and ginger are among the ingredients that can add more flavor to food. A dash of lemon or olive oil on cooked food serves the same purpose. “Sometimes we tell people to add MSG and get that umami taste,” O’Brien said.
- Color, temperature and texture: Bright hues (especially in salads) can make food more interesting. Serving dishes at the proper temps is more important than ever as you get older. And throwing in something crunchy or smooth can provide a major boon.
- Embrace the change: Recognizing palate evolution (even if it’s de-evolution) is eminently useful. “We had a patient who used to hate Brussels sprouts,” O’Brien said, “but now he can’t smell them and loves the color and the texture.”
- Acknowledge what hasn’t changed: Salty and bitter perception ebbs as we age, but usually not our sweet tooth, Pelchat said, adding, “That might explain why people in nursing homes steal the chocolate from the nurses’ station, because they’re not getting enough sweets.”
- Savor: Chew slowly, taking the time to let the food break down and give your nose sensors a chance to do their thing.
- Scents and sensibilities: O’Brien pointed out that “smell is the only nerve that will regenerate in the body after an injury or an illness” and said that sniffing different items for 10 to 15 seconds each twice a day might help olfaction. “People can try items at home or get essential oils. Categories include fruity (like lemon, lime or grapefruit), floral (like rose or geranium), evergreen/resinous (like pine, eucalyptus, patchouli, balsam or spruce) and spicy (like sage, rosemary, thyme or lavender),” noted O’Brien.
- Pelchat offered similar advice. “The easiest thing to do is to keep using your sense of smell. Cook, garden, use spices, go to the fragrance counter, whatever,” she said. “Buy Jelly Bellys and close your eyes and put them in your mouth and try to guess what the flavor is. All of this stuff may help, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to stop and smell the roses.”
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