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Taste Loss in the Elderly

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Author: Justin Nguyen

 

Taste and Smell

Taste Loss in the Elderly

Taste Loss in the Elderly

What is taste and smell? Smell is the interpretation of the signals that the brain receives when olfactory nerves are stimulated. These nerve cells detect molecules in the air that enter the nose, which are part of a specific odor. These molecules bind to the olfactory cells, which code for the odor and translate it into a signal that is dispatched to the brain via nerve fibers.

Taste works in a similar fashion, but instead of olfactory cells, you have gustatory cells, the taste nerves. The gustatory cells are located in your taste buds, which are the small bumps that can be found on the tongue. Like the olfactory cells, the gustatory cells detect dissolved molecules of food and send signals to the brain.

How Taste is Transmitted

How Taste is Transmitted

Smell and taste are closely related. Just try eating something while pinching your nose or when you are sick and have a stuffy nose. Your sense of taste will greatly diminish. Here we can see the interaction between our delicate sense of smell and taste. Without our sense of smell, we can still identify our food as bitter, sweet, salty, etc. However, we would not be able to label the specific unique food taste such as chocolate or cherry flavored.

 

Causes and Effects of Taste Loss

A big misconception is that our sense of taste is diminishing. Although this may be true, sometimes it may be our ability to smell that is impaired which can cause the loss in taste. Taste can also be affected by loss of nerves in the head by injuries. The fewer nerves and cells the brain has to interpret taste and smell signals, the less sensitive we will be to foods and odors. Typically we start to notice a lack in our ability to taste around age 60 because by this time we have lost enough cells to notice a difference in our food. Other reasons for taste loss can occur through anything that affects our smell. These can range from stuffy noses, colds, sinus infections, and certain types of medicine. Although instances of taste loss are usually only temporary, prolonged inability to taste can have undesirable effects.

Loss of taste can result in poor eating habits. Depending on the individual he or she may start to over eat or eat less, resulting in becoming over or underweight. This is because foods may become less appetizing or the individual feeling the need to consume greater amounts of the food in order to taste it. The lack of taste also will make our body numb to what kind of foods we are eating. We will not be able to tell how much salt, fat, and sugars are in our food. Not knowing how much we are consuming during our meals puts one at risk of malnutrition or obesity, which if continued, can lead to a weakened immune system, heart disease, and other medical problems. Another risk that is presented by taste loss is the inability to know what is in our food. This can result in consuming foods that have ingredients that we are allergic to, which could have been avoided with our sense of taste.

 

What Can You Do?

The best way to prevent taste loss is by preventing injuries and catching viruses that can cause sickness. Always use proper head protection whenever there is a risk of head injury and take sanitary precautions. These include washing your hands frequently and avoiding contact with contagious individuals.

If you think you are suffering from prolonged taste loss, you should consider getting a professional diagnosis from a doctor. There are a variety of methods that can help recover taste loss. The doctor may prescribe medication that can reduce swelling and inflammation due to sickness, which blocks our sense of smell. In the case that the taste loss is a side effect of a certain medication, sometimes the problem can be resolved by simply stopping the use of the medicine (only if instructed by the doctor).

If your sense of taste cannot be recovered, there are methods that can help prevent the health problems resulting from taste loss. Under the guidance of your doctor, monitor the types of food that you eat every day and always know exactly what is in the foods you are eating. Adding spices and eating foods with stronger smells can make food easier to taste.

 

What is Being Done?

Currently we know the nerves and receptors for certain tastes and smells. However more research is being done to discover more about the interaction between the food particles and how they bind to the cell receptors. This information is being used to develop specific taste enhancers like artificial sugars. Studies have shown that the elderly tend to base their diets on what they like, so these artificial enhancers may be able to help those with taste loss manage particular diets.  Further research is being conducted to develop more medications that can effectively return your sense of taste.


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