March 16, 2012
Dear Mayo Clinic:
Why do we lose our sense of taste and smell as we get older? I am 86 and very much miss tasting food the way I used to. Is there anything I can do to reverse the loss?
A decrease in taste and smell commonly occurs with aging. But if you lose these senses suddenly or if you notice a significant change in your ability to smell and taste, see your doctor, as certain medications or an underlying medical problem could be to blame. Although nothing can be done to reverse the process if it's related to aging, there are ways to make eating more enjoyable and ensure you get proper nutrition, even if your taste and smell aren't what they used to be.
Our senses of smell and taste are closely related. The tongue has taste buds and taste receptors that allow us to perceive sweet, sour, salty and bitter. In addition, when we eat, food releases odors that engage olfactory nerves within the nose. Those aromas combine with the tastes on our tongue to contribute to the overall enjoyment of food.
With aging, nerves within the nose tend to degenerate, decreasing the ability to smell and taste. To some degree, nerve degeneration also affects the taste buds. For most people, that is less of a problem, though, because the tongue has more nerves than the nose. So, quite a bit of nerve loss would have to occur before you noticed a decrease in taste due to problems with taste buds alone.
Age-related changes to taste and smell occur gradually over time, and there is no way to reverse those changes. In some cases, however, loss of taste and smell may not be a product of aging alone. Nasal and sinus problems — such as nasal polyps, allergies or sinusitis — can lead to a decrease in these senses. Dental issues, including an abscess, tooth decay or poor dental hygiene, may also interfere with your ability to taste and smell. Cigarette smoking is another common cause for a decrease in taste and smell.
In certain cases, a loss of these senses could be a sign of a more serious underlying medical concern. For example, some neurologic diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, may cause loss of taste and smell in their early stages.
If your ability to taste or smell changes abruptly, or if you notice a big decrease in these senses, that should be evaluated by your doctor. In addition, if you are taking medications, talk to your doctor about the possibility that they could be interfering with taste and smell. Many drugs can affect those senses, particularly beta blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. Sometimes a change in medication or treatment for an underlying medical concern may help relieve the loss of taste and smell.
For many people, though, these senses simply fade with age, and the loss is permanent. If that is the case for you, take steps to make eating more pleasant by eating with other people as much as possible. When eating is a social event, people often enjoy their meals more. Also, experiment with different flavors. You may be able to taste some types of food, seasonings and spices better than others. Just be careful not to put too much salt on food, as excess sodium in your diet could lead to additional health concerns.
As taste and smell begin to decrease, be mindful of your eating habits. Some people eat less or begin to eat in unhealthy ways when they lose these senses. Eating three nutritious meals a day, as well as healthy snacks, is important to staying healthy and preventing some common health problems associated with aging.
— Paul Takahashi, M.D., Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.