Why your sense of taste is changing—and what you can do about it
As we age, our sense of taste is subject to change. Certain foods we’ve always loved could begin tasting differently to us. A favorite meal might now seem bland.
For older adults, a change in how food tastes could lead to health problems. Diminished taste causes some individuals to reduce the amount of food they consume—or to stop eating altogether. As a result, they risk unhealthy weight loss or malnutrition. Others often try to compensate for taste loss by adding extra salt or sugar to heighten their food’s flavor. That approach could prove dangerous for someone with high blood pressure or diabetes.
Understanding why we lose taste sensation as we age can help you prepare for the changes—and keep you enjoying your favorite foods longer.
What causes changes in taste?
As humans, we have taste buds located on our tongues, our throats, and the roofs of our mouths. However, it’s not just our taste buds that determine whether food tastes good or bad to us. Many other senses also play a role.
Five taste sensations (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory) combine with other sensations such as texture, aroma, and temperature, to determine the way we judge flavor. Therefore, when we like the way something smells, feels, and looks, we tend to enjoy the taste.
Changes in our senses, including taste, are a natural part of aging. Our bodies typically replace taste-bud cells every week or two; but when we reach our fifties, taste buds tend to take longer to regenerate. In some cases, the cells lose sensitivity or the ability to regenerate at all.
Some medical conditions, poor oral hygiene, and dental issues can all cause problems with taste. Medications for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure often have side effects—such as dry mouth—that cause changes in taste. Some cancer patients report that food tastes differently during or after their treatments. Report any taste loss to your physician and ask whether anything in your health history could be the cause.
Drinking alcohol or smoking could also increase your risk of losing taste. Many people report recovering their taste sensations by reducing—or quitting altogether—their smoking or drinking.
What else can you do?
There are meal preparation changes that can help increase food’s flavors. Experimenting with different spices and herbs can generate new tastes for favorite dishes without increasing salt or sugar intake. Focusing on the food’s temperature—making sure to serve hot dishes hot and cold dishes cold—can also be helpful. And because we use all our senses to determine flavor, preparing meals with various colors and textures can make food more appealing to eat.
Finally, like all of us, older adults are more likely to enjoy our food and get needed nutrition when sharing meals with others. Make a point of eating with others—whether it’s your family and friends or your senior-living-community neighbors.
Don’t forget: Taste loss could be a symptom of a medical condition or a medication side effect, so remember to report any changes in taste to your doctor.