Studies have shown that taste and smell change with age. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2002) showed that 62.5% of elderly people aged 80 – 97 had olfactory impairment. That is, their sense of smell was compromised. What was more, the study showed that few older people are aware of this impairment. They rate their senses as being as sharp as ever, when in fact, they are not.
Since taste is closely related to smell, a decline in the ability to smell may also lead to lackluster experiences with food. In fact, statistics from the 2011-2012 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) showed that twice as many elderly people report a decline in their sense of smell than their sense of taste. Yet sensor cells affecting taste atrophy with age too.
Is age the only culprit in the decline of taste and smell?
Some studies suggest that taste and smell change with age is not only due to the process of aging. The JAMA study showed that elderly people who smoke or who suffer infections in their upper respiratory tracts, or those who have nasal congestion or infection, are prone to losing their senses of smell and having it affect their senses of taste. Researchers Donini, Savina, and Cannelli found that prescription medications can produce changes in the body that affect taste and smell. They also found that problems with dentures and degradations of teeth may also play a part in poor-tasting food or distaste for the process of eating. Teeth problems can also contribute to unpleasant smells that decrease appetite. There may be psychological factors at play too. Since eating is often a social activity, lonely, depressed, isolated elderly people may lose their appetites.
Why is it important to understand why taste and smell change with age
Why is the loss of the senses of taste and smell significant? One reason is because there is less inclination to eat tasteless food. A lack of incentives to eat may lead to malnourishment. An impaired sense of smell may mean that leaking gas or smoke from a fire may go undetected. A study published in 2006 in Science of Aging Knowledge Environment found that 45% of elderly people in the study could not detect the smell of a gas leak.
Caregivers must monitor for dangerous decline in the senses of smell and taste
So, understanding why and how much taste and smell change with age Is important for a caregiver. Due to the dangers of malnutrition or a lack of ability to detect hazards, it is important for caregivers and family members to monitor their elderly loved ones for age-related declines in these important senses. Medical professionals should be urged to test for such declines too. It is especially important for caregivers and family members to take a proactive role because, as noted above, elderly people do not necessarily notice the gradual diminution of their senses of taste and smell.
Helping a senior maintain good nutrition in spite of diminished senses
It may be important to subscribe to a program like Meals on Wheels to help counteract the lack of motivation to prepare food and eat when an elderly person’s senses of taste and smell are declining. Meals out may help too. More frequent invitations for dinner at relatives’ homes may be in order. Caregivers and family members may bring favorites foods to the elderly person too, along with their company. Home care aides may also help with grocery shopping and meal preparation, which can add to an elderly person’s motivation to eat. Commercial preparations of small cans of nutrition-packed beverages, which are often flavored like tasty milkshakes, can also add needed nutriments to an elderly person’s diet when food has lost some of its savor due to declines in the senses of smell and taste. Senses of taste and smell change with age but proactivity can ensure that it doesn’t affect nutrition or safety of an elderly loved one.
Donini, L. M., Savina, C. Cannella, C. (2003). Eating Habits and Appetite Control in the Elderly; The anorexia of Aging. International Psychogeriatrics, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2003, pp. 73-87. 2003 Psychogeriatric Association. Available online at: click here. Accessed April 27, 2017.
Murphy, C., Schubert, C. R., Cruickshanks, K. J., Klein, B. E., Klen, R., Nondahl, D. M. (November 13, 2002). Prevalence of Olfactory Impairment in Older Adults. JAMA. 2002;288(18):2307-2312. doi:10.1001/jama.288.18.2307 Available online at: http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/195502. Accessed April 27, 2017.
Rawal, S., Hoffman, H. J., Bainbridge, K. E., Huedo-Medina, T B., Duffy, V. B. (2016). Prevalence and Risk Factors of Self-Reported Smell and Taste Alterations: Results from the 2011-2012 US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) Chem Senses (2016) 41 (1): 69-76.
Available online at https://academic.oup.com/chemse/article/41/1/69/2365821/Prevalence-and-Risk-Factors-of-Self-Reported-Smell. Accessed April 27, 2017.
Rawson, N. E. (February 8, 2006). Olfactory Loss in Aging. Scientific Aging Knowledge Environment, 2006(5): p. pe6. DOI: 10.1126/sageke.2006.5.pe6]. Accessed April 27, 2017.
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