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When Food Doesn't Taste as Good As It Used To

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When Food Doesn't Taste As Good As It Used To

Most of us have heard an older relative or friend talk about "how things used to be." In the case of food, the comment is frequently that food doesn't taste the same. For some people, the reason that food doesn't taste as good as it used to is due to losses in the ability to taste and smell. These losses, called chemosensory losses, affect approximately 2 million adults, according to some estimates. Taste and smell losses are generally first noticed around age 60, although they can occur earlier, and are more severe in people over 70 years of age. If you're "of a certain age" or caring for someone who is, there are reasons why food doesn't taste as good as it used to. More importantly, there are solutions.

Taste Losses
Taste losses are considered rare, and when they do occur it's usually the result of normal aging, although the exact mechanisms involved are not completely understood. It is known that some taste loss is associated with the normal elevation of taste "thresholds" in older people. Higher taste thresholds indicate an individual requires a higher concentration of taste in order to detect and recognize its presence. In other words, foods need more flavor in order to make an impact!

Smell Losses
Smell losses are more common in older people. In fact, studies indicate that half of those aged 80 and older have lost most of their sense of smell, and one-quarter of those between 65 and 79 experience smell losses. We've all experienced what a loss of smell can do to our ability to taste food when we've had a cold. To mimic this effect, you can try this simple experiment, the Jelly Bean Challenge.


Illnesses Can Affect Taste and Smell
Medical conditions can be a major contributing factor to taste and smell losses and distortions in people of all ages. Yet, we all know that as we age, we become more vulnerable to certain illnesses, which in turn makes us more vulnerable to taste and smell problems.

Some Illnesses That Affect Taste and Smell

Allergic rhinitis
Alzheimer's disease
Bronchial asthma
Cancer
Chronic renal failure
Cushing syndrome
Diabetes mellitus
Epilepsy
Head trauma

Hypothyroidism
Liver disease and cirrhosis
Multiple sclerosis
Niacin (B-3) deficiency
Parkinson's disease
Sinusitis
Tumors
Viral hepatitis
Source: Schiffman, SS. Taste and smell losses in normal aging and disease. J Am Med Assoc., 1997; 278(16):1357-1362.


Medications Can Impact Your Ability to Taste and Smell
Can't smell or taste your food? Medical treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation to the head are known to cause alterations in taste and smell. But even commonly prescribed medications could be the culprit.

Clinical studies have implicated over 250 drugs in altered taste sensations. And, while it's not known exactly how these medications induce taste losses, it has been established that medications can exert adverse effects on taste through secretion into saliva, through the blood and perhaps even by hindering the turnover of taste cells.

Another problem associated with many medications is decreased salivary flow. This side effect can lead to mouth discomfort and problems in chewing and swallowing food. This, in turn, can lead to a decreased food intake, which can be dangerous for many older people—especially those who already have health problems.

All of these problems are compounded by the practice of taking more than one medication, also called polypharmacy. Polypharmacy is actually very common among older people—and many young people, too! Yet, studies have found that, for older people, taking more than one prescription drug at a time is a frequent risk factor for nutrition-related problems. It may also play a role in chemosensory disorders by increasing the likelihood of taste alterations. Consulting a pharmacist about the possibility of taste or smell side effects (and other side effects) is always a good idea.

Some Medications That Affect Taste & Smell*
Lipid-lowering drugs
Antihistamines
Antimicrobials
Anti-inflammatories
Bronchodilators and other asthma medications
Antihypertensives and cardiac medications
Muscle relaxants
Antidepressants
Anticonvulsants
Vasodilators

*Within each type, not necessarily all drugs will affect taste and smell.

Source: Schiffman, SS. Taste and smell losses in normal aging and disease. J Am Med Assoc., 1997; 278(16):1357-1362.

There are ways to compensate for taste and smell alterations caused by medications or medical treatments. Using some of these techniques may make eating enjoyable again!

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