Learn About the Unusual Connection Between Your Sense of Taste and Risk for Disease

It’s natural to notice changes in the way food tastes as we grow older, but certain medications and treatments for diseases such as cancer could have a dramatic effect on taste. As one daughter, whose mother was being treated for Stage IV breast cancer, noted: “Altered taste buds as a result of medications make everything taste horrible for Mom.”

For many older adults, the changes are more subtle. The number of taste buds decreases as you age, according to MedLine Plus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. In fact, by the age of 65, 50 percent of taste buds are lost by the average adult. Each remaining taste bud also begins to shrink. In addition, sensitivity to the five tastes (saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness, and savoriness) often declines after age 60.

The risks:

Loss of taste poses several health risks, the NIH reports:

  • A distorted sense of taste can be a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other illnesses that require sticking to a specific diet. When taste is impaired, a person may change his or her eating habits. Some people may eat too little and lose weight, while others may eat too much and gain weight.
  • Loss of taste can cause you to add too much sugar or salt to make food taste better. This can be a problem for people with certain medical conditions. In severe cases, loss of taste can lead to depression.

Practical tips:

Home Instead® CAREGiverSM Christy’s late client had traveled the world for his job, including many stops in Pakistan and Turkey, and he had developed a taste for spicy Middle Eastern cuisine.

But in his final years, family members often presented him with bland food choices. Not Christy. She changed the client’s meal preparation and made dishes that included such things as curry and lentils. “This is the first job I truly loved. I always try to think about how I can make life better for the clients the next time I am with them,” Christy said. Making or adapting foods that you or the loved one you’re serving loves is one way to keep those with diminished taste buds eating.

Following are tips to help if you or a loved one has lost the sense of taste, according to VeryWell Health and Home Instead Gerontologist Lakelyn Hogan:

  • Enhance the flavour: Simulated flavours, like bacon or cheese, can be added to soups and vegetables to make them more palatable. “Enhancing foods with herbs and spices is a great way to add flavour without using salt or sugar, which can pose health risks for those with certain medical conditions,” Hogan said.
  • Add variety: Try switching from one food item to another between bites to keep taste buds firing. Avoid sensory fatigue by having a variety of foods and textures on a plate.

Hope on the horizon:

Taste cells – as well as sensory cells that help you smell – are the only sensory cells in the human body that are regularly replaced throughout life, according to the NIH. Researchers are exploring how and why this happens so that they might find ways to replace other damaged sensory cells.

Who can help:

See an ENT for an accurate assessment of your taste loss including a physical examination of your ears, nose, and throat, according to the NIH. You also may need a dental examination and assessment of oral hygiene; a review of your health history; and a taste test supervised by a health care professional. Talk to a health professional about any medications that may be impacting your sense of taste.

Learn what you can do to help improve another sensory loss – sense of smell – in older adults.

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