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How Smell and Taste Change With Age

Dr. Noor A. Sheikh

3 min read

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It is no secret that our senses wane as we age. What may taste scaldingly spicy one year might be only mildly hot the next, or you may find that the unbearable stench of the dumpster around the street is not so unbearable any longer. Here we discuss some reasons for change in smell and taste due to aging.

Why Are Smell and Taste Important?

Most people focus on retaining their sight and hearing into old age, taking other senses for granted when in fact, these senses are equally important, as the following points depict:

  • Inability to detect smoke, poisonous gas leaks, or possible allergic chemicals can pose a serious health risk.
  • Inability to distinguish between fresh and spoiled food can cause severe digestive issues, particularly in older individuals.
  • Since elderly people require 2-3 times more salt and sugar for optimum flavor, their tendency to add more of them can cause or further aggravate multiple health issues, particularly hypertension and diabetes.
  • Loss or reduction in smell and taste can lead to voluntary appetite suppression and an imbalanced diet, which in turn can cause malnutrition, weight loss and impaired immunity.
  • Inability to taste previously enjoyable foods or smell favored scents can lead to anxiety, depression, and fear of an underlying disorder.
How Aging Affects the Senses

Typically taste bud cells are replaced every week or two, but after age 50, these cells begin to lose their sensitivity and ability to regenerate. Olfactory nerve endings and mucus production in the nose may also decline, weakening one’s sense of smell. When taste and smell are impaired, a person may change his or her eating habits, whether consciously or unconsciously. Some people may eat too little and lose weight, while others may eat too much and gain weight. This may seem like a mere inconvenience, but the dietary changes that result from a distorted sense of taste can be a serious risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other illnesses that require sticking to a specific diet.

The Mechanism of Change

Taste: The average person has approximately 9,000 taste buds distributed throughout the tongue, the throat, the esophagus and the roof of the mouth. These buds regenerate every 10 days, working as taste receptors to deliver sensations to and from the brain to identify 5 basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory. However, after the ages of 40-50 in women and 50-60 in men, the number of taste buds decreases, and in some cases the cell membranes of neurons transmitting taste signals between the brain and taste receptors becomes damaged, leading to a diminished sense of taste that dwindles with age.

Smell: Similarly, sensory cells located high in the nose lining can lose function, either due to gradual cell aging, or reduced mucus production (mucus helps in retention of scents in the nose for detection by the sensory cells).  Most individuals begin losing the ability to differentiate between scents after 70, which also results in a loss of taste and appetite, since the two senses are interlinked.

Other Causes

In addition to gradual age-related decline, the following external factors may also cause a temporary or permanent reduction in smell and taste:

  • Diabetes
  • Allergies
  • Cold or flu
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Alcohol and smoking
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency
  • Gum disease and other mouth infections
  • Taste receptor damage caused by tooth extractions
  • Harmless, removable polyps in the nose or sinuses
  • Denture issues that leave behind a bad taste after eating
  • Olfactory (smell-related) nerve damage caused by head injuries
  • Radiation (for the head and neck) or chemotherapy for cancer treatment
  • Certain medications like antibiotics, medication for high cholesterol, and those for high blood pressure that reduce saliva and mucus production, causing dryness in the mouth and nose.

The Solution

While age-related sensory decline is irreversible, multiple measures can be taken to adapt to a reduced sense of smell and taste:

  • According to your current health condition, opt for spices, acidic flavours like lemon, or simulated flavours like chicken cubes, cheese flavourings…etc. for the desired flavour while also avoiding health issues like hypertension.
  • Season meat with low-sodium marinades to intensify their aroma, hence increasing palatability.
  • Keep your taste buds active via a colourful, multi-textured meal and alternate between different textures with every bite.
  • Since extreme temperatures can suppress the food’s flavour and scent, opt for mid-temperature foods to maximize it.
  • Ask for help from relatives and neighbours to check for spoiled food in order to avoid food poisoning
  • Invest in ‘Visual Stimulating Gas Detection’ devices for gas-powered appliances if you are unable to smell gas leaks.
  • Ask your doctor for alternative medication if that is the cause of your sensory suppression.

While sensory loss of any kind can be disturbing, it does not have to be disruptive or majorly life-altering. If you observe any of the reasons for change in smell and taste due to aging, consult your doctor to locate the root cause. You can also book an appointment with a top ENT Specialist in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad through oladoc.com, or call our helpline at 042-3890-0939 for assistance to find the RIGHT doctor for your sensory concerns.

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are intended to raise awareness about common health issues and should not be viewed as sound medical advice for your specific condition. You should always consult with a licensed medical practitioner prior to following any suggestions outlined in this article or adopting any treatment protocol based on the contents of this article.

Dr. Noor A. Sheikh - Author Dr. Noor A. Shaikh is a leading ENT specialist and surgeon based in Karachi. He has deep expertise in treatment of conditions like headache, head & neck surgeries, thyroid problems, and ear cleaning. You can seek appointment with him through oladoc
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