Are you finding that life isn’t as…sweet as it used to be? How about salty? Or sour? You’re not imagining things – as you age, your sense of taste actually starts to decline, like your eyesight or hearing. This phenomenon can feel like another annoying part of getting older, but your declining sense of taste can actually pose risks to your health – not to mention that it can affect your quality of life. There are ways you can push back against a diminished sense of taste, and we’ve got tips for putting the pleasure back into your meals.
We are born with around 9,000 taste buds, each one a bundle of sensory cells that sends taste signals to the brain through nerves. Some are attuned to sweetness, some to saltiness, some to bitterness, etc. But after age 50, the number of taste buds you have decreases, and the others begin to shrink, so your sense of taste becomes markedly less intense.
There are multiple possible reasons for this change in the quantity and quality of your taste buds, and for the change in your sense of taste. First, scientists believe that, while taste buds are generally good at regenerating (think of how quickly you can recover after burning your tongue!), their ability to regenerate themselves decreases with age.
Another major factor in loss of taste is actually the age-related decline of another sense: your sense of smell. Much of your ability to taste foods is intimately related to your ability to smell those foods. Your taste buds can detect a handful of tastes, but your nose can detect thousands of smells. As you age, olfactory nerve endings and mucus production in the nose may also decline, weakening your sense of smell – and your sense of taste.
There are many other reasons that you may be experiencing a change in your sense of taste, so it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if this is happening to you. Some of these reasons include:
- Side effects of certain medications
- Head injuries
- Dental problems, such as gum disease, ill-fitting dentures or inflammation
- Radiation therapy for head and neck cancers
- Dry mouth
- Heavy smoking
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Bell’s palsy
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease
Losing your sense of taste can be more than just an inconvenient part of aging – there are certain risks associated with a diminished sense of taste. For example, since salty and sweet sensations are usually the first to be affected, you could start unknowingly oversalting your food. This could pose a problem, especially for seniors, because consuming too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, which can affect your heart.
Losing your sense of taste can also mean losing interest in your food, which could pose a risk beyond simple weight loss. You might end up missing out on vital nutrients because certain foods no longer taste the same to you. On the other hand, you could consume the wrong things, such as spoiled food or foods that contain harmful ingredients.
The same goes for drinking – you may end up consuming water that is less than ideal. Researchers at Virginia Tech found that, as people age, they’re less likely to detect chemicals such as iron in their drinking water. Certain compounds give your water a metallic flavor that you’ll have a harder time detecting as you age, which puts you at risk for overexposure to iron and copper – a possible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of switching to wasteful bottled water, however, look for a high quality water filtration system to combat this problem.
What You Can Do
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to reverse loss of taste. In most cases, it’s just a natural part of aging. First, speak to your doctor to rule out any of the conditions mentioned above. Next, try a few of the following things to up your enjoyment of your meals:
- Make meals more social – You’re more likely to eat bigger, more nutritious meals if you make it a point to eat with others. If the weather is nice near you, invite friends for an outdoor meal. If you have extended family that you are currently seeing, then try to make regular meals with them a part of your routine. Consider also extending your circle to include other seniors around you, and join in on community meals and potlucks.
- Up the herbs and spices (but not the salt!) – You don’t need salt to boost the flavor of your food – try turning up the spice levels instead. Add more sweet, fresh basil to Italian dishes, citrusy cilantro to Mexican or Asian dishes, pungent oregano to Greek food, warm cinnamon to North African-inspired dishes, or curry, turmeric, garam masala, or any number of spices to Indian dishes. You can also experiment with flavored vinegars, oils, or add herbs like dill to your rice, orange juice to your sweet potatoes, and lemon to your fish. The possibilities are endless!
- Heat it up (or cool it down!) –Food tastes better when it’s the right temperature! If you’re eating a meal that should be served piping hot, or chilled to perfection, make sure you’re eating it that way. A little temperature tweak could be all it takes to make a meal more palatable.
- Try something new –Be adventurous! Try a new cuisine, or exciting new recipes. Even if you feel set in your ways when it comes to your palate, consider taking tried and true and ingredients and preparing them in new ways.
- Find your favorite meal – Listen to your body! If you wake up ravenous and have always loved a hearty breakfast, then make that meal a focal point and really savor it. If you’ve always loved to relax after a long day and eat a big dinner to satisfy your end-of-the-day hunger, then focus on dinner and make it a big deal. Figure out when you’re hungriest and make the most of it!
The side effects of aging can range from annoying to downright dangerous – and losing your sense of taste is no different. It can be tough to relish your food as you age – and to get the nutrients you need – but by taking a few simple steps, and really focusing on your favorite meals, some delicious ingredients, and some (safe!) social time, you can continue to stay healthy, happy, and well-fed.