Loss of hearing or diminishing vision are widely associated with aging. But one’s senses of smell and taste may diminish with aging as well.
The senses of taste and smell work in concert. The sense of smell is vital to personal health, not only because inhaling pleasant aromas can provide comfort and stress relief through aromatherapy and help trigger important memories, but also because smell enables a person to detect the dangers of smoke, gas, spoiled food, and more. The National Institute on Aging says that, as a person gets older, his or her sense of smell may fade, and that will also affect taste. The Mayo Clinic says some loss of taste and smell is natural and can begin as early as age 60.
Adults have about 9,000 taste buds sensing sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors, or those corresponding to the flavor of glutamates. Many tastes are linked to odors that begin at the nerve endings in the lining of the nose. MedlinePlus (an online information service produced by the United States National Library of Medicine) says the number of taste buds decreases as one ages, and that remaining taste buds may begin to shrink. Sensitivity to the five tastes also begins to decline. This can make it more difficult to distinguish between flavors.
Similarly, especially after age 70, smell can diminish due to a loss of nerve endings and less mucus in the nose. With the combination of the reduction of these important sensory nerves in the nose and on the tongue, loss of smell and taste can greatly affect daily life.
Changes in these senses can contribute to feelings of depression, diminish one’s enjoyment of food and cause harmful conditions, such as extreme weight loss from disinterest in food to problems associated with overusing salt or sugar.
Although aging is often to blame, loss of smell and taste also may be tied to early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. Cancer treatments, medications, lack of saliva, colds, flu, and other factors may contribute to sensory loss. Changing medications or treatments may help.
It’s important to bring up diminished flavors or smells with a doctor to rule out something more serious and to determine what might help restore pleasure from smells and flavors. An otolaryngologist, or a doctor who specializes in diseases of the ears, nose and throat, may be able to help fix the problem, though some people may be referred to a neurologist or another specialist.
Continuing to use one’s sense of smell and taste by cooking, gardening, trying new flavors, and experimenting with different aromas may help slow down the decline these senses. Although age-related loss of taste and smell cannot be reversed, some such cases may be treatable.