The loss of our senses is often a normal part of aging. If you’re experiencing loss of smell and/or taste, some specialists can help determine the cause. Treating any underlying medical issues can drastically improve your senses. If the loss of taste is due to normal aging, there aren’t any known cures or ways to reverse it; however, managing it is easy with a few changes to the way you eat.
Losing your sense of smell and taste is a normal part of aging but may also be a sign of something else.
Seeing an otolaryngologist (ENT) can help you decipher between normal aging sensory loss and a potential underlying medical cause.
Natural loss of smell and taste associated with aging is very manageable with creative solutions.
Experimenting with color, flavor, texture, and temperature can keep mealtime enjoyable while meeting your nutritional needs.
All senses diminish as we age; this is an inevitable part of aging. Smell and taste are strongly connected, and when one of these senses goes, the other usually follows. Not all sensory loss is created equal, however. Some changes in your senses can indicate an underlying medical condition. Seeing a specialist help address any potential issues is key to improving your health. On the other hand, if medical issues are ruled out, it’s important to know how to handle these changes to prevent potential nutrient deficiencies. Thankfully, there are some easy and fun ways to help stimulate your sense of smell and taste, thereby improving your nutrition and helping to make mealtime satisfying again.
Our sense of taste
Taste is one of the most common sensory changes we experience as we age. There are several reasons for this. The number of taste buds we have declined with age, dropping from about 9,000 when we’re born to about 5,000 by the time we reach our 70s. Females can see changes as early as their 40s, whereas men report changes a bit later, starting in their 50s.
At the same time, our remaining taste buds undergo atrophy or shrink, and lose some of their functionality. As a result, we experience a decreased sensitivity to taste. This can significantly affect appetite, which can lead to nutritional imbalances.
Our sense of smell
Often, the driving force behind our loss of taste is the loss of smell. The sense of smell is the oldest (evolutionarily speaking) and most changeable sense we have. Smell and taste are very strongly linked. Scientists estimate that 75-95% of what we think of as taste comes from our sense of smell in the form of aroma. The tongue can detect only a handful of tastes, whereas the nose can detect thousands of smells. You can see why our sense of smell is so important for our sense of taste.
A decline in our sense of smell not only affects appetite and nutrition but can also be a safety hazard. For example, not being able to smell when food has gone bad makes us vulnerable to food poisoning. In addition, not being able to smell potential threats, like noxious fumes or smoke during a fire, can also pose a serious health risk.
An ENT may be able to help
If you are experiencing other symptoms associated with loss of taste and/or smell, you may want to see an otolaryngologist — an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT). These specialists are qualified to examine, treat, and even perform surgery (when necessary) on the complex and delicate tissues of the neck and head.
Conditions like allergies, sinusitis, infection, diseases of the central nervous system (like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s), and certain cancers often cause loss of taste and smell. Seeking the care of an otolaryngologist could prove very helpful in eliminating any underlying cause of your sensory loss.
Tips for enjoying food with age-related loss of taste & smell
Changes in smell and taste can often affect appetite as mealtime isn’t as enjoyable as it once was. “Loss of taste and smell can have a significant impact on quality of life. It often leads to decreased appetite and poor nutrition,” says Dr. Paul Y. Takahashi, M.D. of Mayo Clinic. Thankfully, there are ways we can prevent negative nutritional effects and bring back mealtime excitement while improving overall health and well-being.
Eat with your eyes: Focus on eating brightly colored foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, apples, blueberries, and avocados. Presentation matters! — and can help stimulate appetite. By focusing on bright colors, you can make mealtime more engaging.
Flavor is your friend: Adding robust flavors to your meals may increase your sense of taste. Add things like garlic, chili, ginger, mustard, cinnamon, and lemon juice to boost flavor.
As we age, we can stop producing sufficient saliva. However, sour foods like lemon juice stimulate the production of saliva, enhancing the flavor of foods. More saliva means the food will coat more taste buds, giving you a better mealtime experience.
Play with textures: When the flavor is limited, the way food feels when we eat can become more noticeable, having a greater impact than taste alone. To stimulate appetite and keep things more interesting, try different combinations of textures like soft pudding, crunchy crackers, juicy grapes, sticky nut butter, chewy proteins, and liquid soups or smoothies. Enjoy exploring different mouthfeel experiences.
Explore new things: As taste and smell change, so will food and flavor preferences. Don’t be afraid to amp up your next meal’s flavor profile and overall experience by trying new spices, foods, herbs, sauces, and textures to give you a stronger flavor profile at your next meal. You may find that foods you couldn’t handle before could be your new favorites now!
Clinical dietitian, Victoria Lee, from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center recommends you “[keep] a variety of sweet, salty, spicy, and sour condiments, sauces, and herbs on hand, too – even if they’re not something you’ve ever liked in the past.” Your tastes will change, and having new things to experiment with can often lead to eating more at mealtime, helping support better appetite and overall nutrition.
Try different temperatures: the texture isn’t the only way to enhance your sense of mouthfeel. Trying foods at different temperatures can also help us enjoy meals more. Try chilled or frozen foods, room temperature foods, warm foods, and even hot foods (up to tolerance) to see what your palate prefers.
Smell retraining therapy (SRT): Your healthcare provider may recommend “smell retraining therapy”. Dr. Thomas Hummel at the University of Dresden developed this therapy to help olfactory nerves (nerves we smell with) regenerate and encourage improved brain connectivity. The technique involves focusing your sense of smell on four different familiar scents for about 10-20 seconds at a time, at least twice per day, for three months (longer is even better).
Enjoying food as we age may be challenging when our senses aren’t as sharp as they once were. However, you can keep mealtime interesting and nutritious by seeking professional help when necessary, applying these steps, and trying new things. Don’t let diminishing smells and tastes stop you from enjoying life!