Taste and smell are closely linked. Delicious tastes help ensure that we eat and enjoy food, while unsavory tastes help us stay away from poisons. But did you know that our sense of smell is estimated to be about 10,000 times more sensitive than our sense of taste? We actually smell more flavors than we taste. That's why when the nose fails, from a bad cold, for instance, 80 percent of the taste ability is lost.
Odors, whether sweet or unpleasant, are volatile chemicals that kill neurons and are then replaced regularly throughout our lives. As we age, our ability to replace those cells slows.
A decline in taste and smell usually begins around age 60 and is more pronounced by age 70. Our taste buds become less sensitive, and our nerves, need extra stimulation, making ordinarily seasoned foods bland. One study found women were particularly less sensitive to bitter tastes as they got older and consequently show an increasing preference for certain vegetables, whole-grain foods, sour foods such as grapefruit and lemons and relatively bitter beverages such as coffee and tea. So never be afraid to try new foods. There is still time to acquire a taste.
Healthy older individuals who take no medications experience only small changes in taste with the exception of some changes in salty taste. But deteriorating health, poor nutrition or malnutrition, diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, surgery and medications can worsen this loss. Even "dry mouth" can be a problem because taste buds are stimulated when food is dissolved in saliva.
Did you know a senior with one or more medical conditions who takes an average of three medications needs 11 times as much salt and almost three times as much sugar to detect those tastes in foods compared with younger people? Most drugs are bitter, and the bitterness comes out in the saliva, altering the sense of taste, causing us to unknowingly consume higher amounts of sugar, salt and fatty foods to achieve the desired taste. This makes us more vulnerable to conditions such as diabetes, stroke or high blood pressure.
To improve taste and smell of everyday foods, try adding these: Monosodium glutamate - MSG (if you don't have high blood pressure); it has only one-third the sodium of table salt; spices and herbs; flavor extracts (when using almond, vanilla or other extracts, try doubling the amount called for in the recipe); bacon bits, cheese or butter-flavored buds; nectars and jams (to make flavored sauces).
People with taste challenges may find that eating can be more enjoyable when other aspects of flavor are explored. For example, texture (adding crunch, such as nuts or croutons,); temperature (eating hot and cold items together in the same dish such as non-fat sour cream on a baked potato); and eating hot and spicy foods may help to make food less bland. Switching foods as you eat, such as one bite of meat, then vegetable, then bread, will help improve taste sensations. Even something as simple as a pleasant atmosphere and attractively prepared meals can help make food more enjoyable. Listen to music rather than the TV during mealtime. Light a candle or use colorful plates.
Be aware that loss of taste and smell can also put older individuals at risk for food poisoning because they might not be able to detect, through smell, that food has spoiled. Read expiration dates. If food is suspected to be spoiled, ask someone to smell it before you eat it. When in doubt, throw it out.
Finally, if you think you've lost that "tasting" feeling, be sure to check your home smoke detectors regularly. And purchase a gas detector with an alarm if you have gas heat. Remember, safety first. After all, these are the "seasonings" of our lives.
Annie Lindsay is an assistant professor and exercise physiologist at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She conducts research and programming in adult fitness, physical activity, body image and childhood obesity prevention. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.