Our sense of taste is easy to take for granted; after all, people usually eat three times a day. If you do, that’s more than 78,000 meals in the average person’s lifetime. As the years go by, some may find themselves reaching for more salt, pepper, ketchup, hot sauce—anything to give your meal an extra kick. If this sounds familiar, you may have a bigger issue than bland food.
More than 200,000 people report some issue with their sense of taste or smell every year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services . Doctors estimate the number of affected people is much higher, as many people are quick to ignore the change in taste.
But the loss of any senses can have major implications on a person’s well-being as they age. Specifically, a diminished sense of taste can lead to overconsumption of salt, increasing the risk of high blood pressure.
“Eating is essential for our survival, and enjoyment of food and drink ensures this process is maintained,” said Dr. Carl Philpott , an honorary consultant ear, nose, and throat surgeon at Spire Norwich Hospital in England. “These senses also serve as a hazard warning system to help us avoid dangers such as gas leaks and spoiled food.”
Medical science is unable to reverse the effects of aging on a person’s palate. But there are still ways to avoid further diminishing your taste and compensate for the loss if the effects are already noticeable.
How Do We Sense Taste?
At birth, the human tongue has between 9,000 and 10,000 taste buds. These “buds ” are clumps of sensory cells, which send signals to the brain that we interpret as taste. Taste buds can sense five basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (or savory, like the taste of beef broth). And some taste buds are more sensitive to each. However, the “map” of the tongue showing taste buds for each flavor in certain areas that you may have learned in school has been disproven.
These five basic flavors combine with other factors —such as texture, spiciness, and smell—to create taste. Aroma has so much to do with how we distinguish flavor that, often, patients complaining of a loss of taste are actually losing their sense of smell.
“It’s the nose that provides you with the flavor of food. Loss of smell, and with it any experience of food flavor, is quite devastating,” Dr. Philpott said. “Coming to terms with the loss of an entire sense or even two often leads to other difficulties—including depression and thoughts of suicide.”
The loss of smell is more common than the loss of taste. Almost 25 percent of Americans 55 and older suffer from some type of diminished olfactory ability.
What Makes our Sense of Taste Decline?
“We don’t have a full understanding of why taste perception declines with age,” said Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
The cause of age-related loss of taste is unknown , but other factors can contribute to the loss of this sense, including the following:
- Upper respiratory and middle ear infections
- Chronic sinus infections
- Exposure to certain medications
- Head injuries
- Gum disease or poor oral hygiene
- Some cancer treatments
Normally, taste buds are remarkably good at recovering from damage and have an estimated lifespan of about 10 days. For example, a too-hot cup of coffee in the morning can damage the taste buds, but sensation returns after a few days.
But studies show , as we age, this regenerative property begins to break down. This decline comes on around age 50 for men and women.
Possible Risks Associated With Loss of Taste
An inability to identify contaminated food or the risk of unhealthy eating can occur. But there are more serious symptoms of loss of taste that Dr. Philpott believes are too often ignored.
“People with [taste] disorders look ‘normal’ and can function with less obvious disability than people without sight or hearing,” Dr. Philpott says. “As a result, they are most often advised to go away and try to live with the condition, leaving many struggling to cope. It is often as important to treat the associated depression, which can affect more than half of people with taste and smell disorders, as it is to combat the olfactory or gustatory loss.”
For the person lacking in sense of taste and smell, dinner with friends could be likened to a person with no hearing going to a concert. The deficiency can manifest in physical problems or lead to the avoidance of food altogether.
But the bigger issue is the lack of awareness. If people are willing to ignore this problem, they may also be unaware of the cause or possible treatments for diminishing taste.
How to Overcome Diminishing Taste
Scientists have made few medical advancements in this field. Training can help one compensate for the loss. Slight alterations to meals or changes in medication and environmental factors can also help.
Smokers often notice their sense of taste returning soon after quitting. Some antibiotics and blood pressure medications also cause loss of sensation. Additionally, drinking a glass of water every hour can help your sense of taste return, as keeping your palate lubricated can make up for a lack of saliva. A change in any one of these factors could restore the sense of taste. Loss of taste caused by aging, or a complete lack of taste known as ageusia, can be managed as well.
“It is about making the most of what you have,” Dr. Philpott said. “We provide suggestions for enhancing food—altering spiciness or texture, for example—to make it more enjoyable. If you can still slightly taste spices, make your food hotter using chiles. Or alter the texture: Make it creamier or crunchy.”
Avoiding both salt and sugar for a time can also help reset your palate’s ability to taste these flavors. Other tricks include eating food that looks like what it is (i.e. eating chicken on the bone instead of in chunks or strips). Varying what you eat with every bite and chewing your food more can also mitigate the loss of taste or smell. These practices help the brain make better connections with the act of eating and relieve some pressure on an overtaxed sense of taste.
Zinc deficiencies have also been linked to the loss of taste and smell, among other things. In 2007, a study of zinc sulfate’s effects on cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment was conducted. It found that zinc sulfate was not effective at restoring the sense of taste.
Losing one’s sense of taste may never be considered as serious as the loss of other senses, nor will it likely get the same amount of funding for research. Yet the eventual loss of taste is not only something with many different causes; it is also likely to occur on its own with aging. Being unable to taste food, while still requiring it to live, can lead people to less healthy diets and can even cause depression. So it’s time to stop ignoring the problem, and leave that salt shaker where it is.