This Week’s Question: I have a bet with a friend that you start losing your sense of taste as you get older. She says that her taste is as strong as ever and thinks I’m wrong. Who wins the bet?
In general, sensitivity to taste gradually decreases with age. But there are some whose taste isn’t affected by getting older. Who wins the bet? I won’t touch that one.
The ability to taste food and beverages means a lot to seniors. Let’s face it; we lose a lot of the pleasures of our youth, but eating well isn’t usually one of them.
Taste also has a major impact upon our physical and mental health. Our sense of taste is especially important if we have to stay on a diet. If food loses its appeal, we may eat improperly and put ourselves at risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Loss of taste can lead us to overeat, undereat, or add too much salt or sugar to our food.
While taste is important, we recognize flavors largely through our sense of smell. Try holding your nose while eating. Smell and taste are closely linked in the brain. It is common for people who lose their sense of smell to say that food has lost its taste. This is incorrect; the food has lost its aroma, but taste remains. Loss of taste occurs less frequently than loss of smell in older people.
When an older person has a problem with taste, it is often temporary and minor. True taste disorders are uncommon. When a problem with taste exists, it is usually caused by medications, disease, or injury.
In some cases, loss of taste can accompany or signal a more serious condition, such as diabetes or some degenerative diseases of the central nervous system such as multiple sclerosis.
There are several types of taste disorders You can have a persistent bad taste in the mouth. This is called a dysgeusia. Some people have hypogeusia, or the reduced ability to taste. Others can't detect taste at all, which is called ageusia. People with taste disorders experience a specific ageusia of one or more of the five taste categories: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory.
The most common complaint is “phantom taste perception,” which is tasting something that isn’t there.
If you think you have a taste disorder, see your doctor. Diagnosis of a taste disorder is important because once the cause is found, your doctor may be able to treat your taste disorder. Many types of taste disorders are reversible, but, if not, counseling and self-help techniques may help you cope.
If you cannot regain your sense of taste, there are things you can do to ensure your safety. Take extra care to avoid food that may have spoiled. If you live with other people, ask them to smell and taste food to see if it is fresh. People who live alone should discard food if there is a chance it is spoiled.
The Healthy Geezer column publishes each Wednesday on LiveScience. If you would like to ask a question, please write firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2009 by Fred Cicetti.