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Taste Changes and Ageing

It is often said that we eat with or through our eyes. The same can be said of taste and smell.

Eating involves 2 senses working together – taste and smell. Your taste buds identify flavour – sweet, salty, sour, bitter. Your sense of smell allows enjoyment of food via the aroma. If your sense of smell alters, your tastes may too.

Normal tastes occur when molecules released by chewing stimulate special sensory cells in the mouth and throat, and these in turn, send messages to the brain where taste profiles are identified.

Did you know?

At birth, most people have between 2000 and 10000 taste buds. Taste buds are replaced every 1-2 weeks, but after the age of 50, these cells lose both their sensitivity and their ability to regenerate. At the same time, the sense of smell may decline.

This loss of taste and smell can have a significant effect on “Quality of life”, often leading to decreased appetite and poor nutrition. This can then cause a number of health problems.

It is usual to experience a loss in taste and smell after the age of 60. Other factors can contribute to loss of taste and smell also, including:

  • Nasal and sinus problems
  • Certain medications – beta blockers and ACE inhibitors
  • Dental problems – gum disease, ill-fitting dentures
  • Smoking
  • Head or facial injury or mass
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Dry mouth
  • Sjogrens syndrome

While it isn’t possible to reverse age-related loss of taste and smell, a Doctor may be able to assist with some of the other causes. It is important to share any concerns with the Doctor.

There are 5 basic taste sensations:

  • sweet,
  • sour,
  • bitter,
  • salty,
  • umami. (Umami is a savoury sensation which includes the taste of glutamate, a component of chicken broth, cooked meats and some cheeses).

Commonly, people lose their sensitivity to sweet, salty and umami flavours first, while their sensitivity to sour and bitter is heightened as they age. This explains why we often observe the older person adding extra salt and sugar to their meals. Additionally, they are often heard to say “everything tastes bitter or sour”.

Try some of the following dietary strategies to manage this, so that food continues to be enjoyable and something to look forward to, while helping maintain good nutrition and health.

It is important to be more liberal with the diet of older persons and to not restrict intake of salt or sugar, unless clinically indicated.

If you are finding your food too bland

  • try adding some of your favourite condiments like mustard, tomato sauce, gravy, chilli sauce, mayonnaise, Worcestershire, HP sauce, Oyster or soy sauce.
  • try adding different herbs, spices, lemon/lime juice or flavoured salts.

If you have a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth

  • try eating moist fruit, such as berries or melon,
  • try sucking boiled sweets or ginger-flavoured lollies
  • try having small sips of flavoured drinks.

If you are suffering from a dry mouth

  • choose soft, moist foods and add moist condiments and accompaniments to dishes like margarine or sour cream.
  • drink fluids to keep your mouth hydrated and lubricated. It is a good idea to keep a small spray bottle filled with water to freshen the mouth regularly
  • citrus juice like orange juice helps stimulate salivary glands. If you notice any irritation, however, stop drinking them.
  • try sucking on sugar free lollies or chewing sugar free gums
  • grape seed oil is useful as a lubricating agent at night. Mix grapeseed oil with a drop of peppermint oil and wipe over the tongue
  • try pharmaceutical oral sprays and gels available also to stimulate or replace saliva.
  • A Speech Pathologist can assist you with this problem – ask your GP for a referral

If you have lost or a reduced sense of smell

  • ensure meals are served at an appropriate temperature, as the smells and aroma from hot food will help stimulate saliva and promote enjoyment of meals prior to and during eating.
  • try to visualise the meal and the flavours and tastes expected

A special note about thrush.

If the older person is suffering from an acute change in taste as well as a white coating on their tongue they may have oral thrush which can be treated, with a return to normal tastes, once resolved.

Bon appetit!