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Coping with changes in smell and taste

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February 20th, 2014
two senses: smell and taste
two senses: smell and taste

Seniors are well aware of the changes that occur in certain senses as they age—hearing and vision in particular, which were the topics of my two previous columns. But not everyone thinks about how aging-related changes in taste and smell can also affect health and quality of life. 

Both of these senses diminish as you age. When you are younger, your taste buds can differentiate among 10,000 flavors. Later in life, however, sweet foods may taste less sweet, while others, such as sour foods, may have more intense flavor. 

Research suggests that these changes in taste may not be due to the aging process alone. There can be other contributing factors, such as reduced saliva production, which leads to a dry mouth (many commonly prescribed medications can cause this side-effect) or the presence of periodontal disease or tooth decay, which can interfere with your taste perception. Medical conditions, including stroke, diabetes, thyroid disease, or neurological problems, can also be contributing factors. 

Your sense of smell declines even faster than your sense of taste. On average, by the time you are in your 80s, the ability to smell is half as keen as it was in your youth. This may be due to changes in the receptor cells responsible for detecting scent. Certain medicines, congestion, or health problems such as sinusitis, polyps, or a neurological condition can dampen the ability to smell even more. 

Don’t discount these two senses

While being able to taste and smell may not seem as important as being able to see or hear, the fact remains that alterations in these senses can significantly affect your health and functioning.

A deficiency in smell might mean you can’t detect dangerous odors such as smoke or a gas leak. If your sense of taste is decreased, you may unwittingly eat tainted or spoiled food.

Possibly the biggest risk is how these changes can affect your nutritional status. Food has much less appeal if you can’t smell or taste it. You may not even be aware that you are eating less because it can happen gradually over time.

If foods don’t taste or smell like they used to, start with a visit to your primary doctor. You may need a simple medication adjustment or treatment for an underlying problem. If necessary, you may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist.

Even if a definite cause of the problem isn’t found or treatable, you can make food more appealing by changing preparation techniques or adding different spices. Making adjustments so that mealtime is enjoyable is certainly worth the effort as food can be one of the great joys in life and is fundamentally important to our health and well-being.

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