When you think of aging, the first things that probably come to mind are wrinkles, aches and pains, maybe even chronic indigestion. But other aspects of the aging process are more subtle, like how your taste buds seem to short-circuit as you get older.
Here's why that happens, and what it could mean for your health.
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What Are Taste Buds, Exactly?
First, a crash course on taste buds and how they operate: Taste buds are microscopic structures responsible for sensing taste compounds in foods, drinks and anything else that passes through your mouth.
"The majority of taste buds are on the tongue, located within the papillae — visible red, circular structures that give the tongue its characteristic bumpy appearance," Nadia Chan, MD, an otolaryngologist at Loma Linda University Health in California, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
There are also taste buds on the soft palate, cheek and throat. "Taste buds are barrel- or onion-shaped structures that contain 50 to 100 tightly packed cells, some of which are the taste receptor cells," Dr. Chan says. "Their job is to transfer a chemical taste signal to one of three cranial nerves that will then send that signal to the brain."
The general taste qualities we experience as a result are sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory.
Other specialized nerves create the sensations of heat, cold and texture — these, along with the sensations from the five taste qualities, combine with how a food smells and produces a perception of flavor. This is how you're able to distinguish between specific foods.
"Due to the abrasive nature of the oral cavity, the lifespan of these sensory cells is only eight to 12 days and are constantly regenerating," Dr. Chan says.
How Taste Buds Change as You Age
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, you have about 10,000 taste buds, and that number decreases as you age — for some people, this decrease starts as early as their 40s, per the Cleveland Clinic.
"As we age, the regeneration of the taste bud receptor cells tends to slow, resulting in a subtle, somewhat decreased ability to taste," Ameet R. Kamat, MD, director of sinus and skull base surgery at White Plains Hospital in New York, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "When the number of cells sending signals to the brain decreases, the brain has less information to decipher the taste."
The ability of each individual taste receptor cell to detect and send the necessary signals slows with age, too — so the individual papillae containing the taste buds not only decrease in number, but may also change in shape, ultimately reducing the ability to detect food particles.
Smell plays a larger role in taste and how we enjoy our food than many people realize, and our smell receptor cells (or olfactory cells) also slow in regeneration as we age, Dr. Kamat says, especially after the age of 50.
When you chew food, aromas are released that activate your sense of smell via a special channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. But if your olfactory cells are regenerating at a glacial pace, this can affect how food aromas are processed, causing the foods you're eating to taste bland.
To top it off, we produce less saliva as we age. "Saliva acts as a solvent that influences taste sensitivity," Uma Naidoo, MD, psychiatrist, nutrition specialist and author of This Is Your Brain on Food, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It works by breaking down and transporting food molecules to diffuse to the taste receptors."
As less saliva is produced, the interaction between food particles and taste receptors is altered, along with the sense of taste.
Other Factors That Can Affect Your Sense of Taste
In addition to the aging process in general, health-related issues and lifestyle habits can stockpile as you age and mess with your sense of taste. These might include:
1. Dental Problems
When complications like cavities, dental infections and thrush create an unhealthy oral environment, the healthy functions of our taste receptors are affected, Dr. Naidoo says.
Infections or abscesses, for example, can cause infected drainage to enter your mouth and stimulate the taste buds, leaving you with a literal bad taste in your mouth.
2. Certain Medications
As we age, we're more likely to need maintenance medications for chronic medical conditions.
"Medications taken orally enter the bloodstream, and from there, may enter saliva and cause a bitter taste in the mouth," Dr. Chan says.
Certain medications can also cause dry mouth by reducing the ability of our salivary glands to function, including some medications that treat blood pressure, depression and bladder control.
3. Acute Illnesses
Smell can be affected by acute illnesses, including allergies, sinusitis and sensitivity to our environment, including pollution, cigarette smoke and temperature changes.
Meanwhile, viral infections that disrupt your sense of smell (cold, flu, COVID-19) can affect your ability to detect flavor because the two senses are closely intertwined. In the case of COVID-19, "certain smell-supporting cells in the upper nasal cavity are vulnerable to COVID infection, as they contain proteins that bind to the coronavirus," Dr. Naidoo says. "This prevents normal smell, and thus, taste."
Fortunately, these effects are usually temporary — your sense of taste should return once your sense of smell does, according to the National Institute on Aging. (If it doesn't, this warrants a check-in with your doctor.)
4. Certain Health Conditions
Autoimmune diseases are known to affect taste function, including Sjogren's syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus, diabetes and inflammatory bowel diseases. "The inflammation can affect several organs and tissues, including taste buds," Dr. Chan says.
Ditto neurological and nervous system conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, which become more common with age and can mess with the nerves in your mouth — including those involved in the gustatory (taste) pathway.
There are also disorders specifically associated with taste perception, either in an enhanced or reduced manner. "Hypogeusia is characterized by a reduced ability to taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory flavors, while ageusia is a loss of the sense of taste entirely," Dr. Naidoo says. Similarly, dysgeusia is a condition in which a foul or rancid taste lingers in the mouth.
"Individuals are either born with these disorders or they can stem from infections, chemical exposures, radiation treatments or poor oral hygiene, among other origins," Dr. Naidoo says.
Smokers are shown to have a reduced ability to taste, which can get worse over time.
"Smoking can dull or even kill taste buds by changing the blood supply that taste buds receive," Dr. Naidoo says. "Proper blood flow is necessary for most healthy bodily functions — when this is reduced, so is the ability to taste."
6. Cancer Treatments
Many cancer patients experience taste alterations because the rapid growth of cancer and its associated tissue damage and inflammation contribute to abnormalities in taste.
"Treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can further exacerbate the problem by direct tissue damage," Dr. Chan says, with patients often describing food as tasting metallic or off. Taste dysfunction may begin during treatment and last for several months after treatment ends.
How Losing Your Sense of Taste Can Affect Your Health
In the short-term, an MIA sense of taste can make dinners out feel pointless — and over time, it can have a significant affect on your quality of life, per the Mayo Clinic.
"When you have an altered sense of taste or lose taste altogether, it can make it difficult to eat the foods you need to stay healthy," Nicole Avena, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "You may be more drawn to highly palatable foods (like junk food) over things with less flavor or palatability (like vegetables)."
You might find yourself using excess salt or sugar on your food to trigger a similar flavor profile to the ones you're used to, which could cause problems if you have high blood pressure or diabetes. Worse, you might not want to eat anything at all. Enter malnutrition, weight loss, anorexia and depression.
As for where to go from here: "Tasting our food is so much more than what our tongue and nose tell us," Avena says. "It's a whole experience — from looking at our food, to crunching it, slurping it or smushing it around then swallowing it."
How to Stay Healthy as Your Sense of Taste Changes
No matter what's causing your taste buds to malfunction, here's how experts recommend using other aspects of your senses to balance the scales and ensure you're getting enough nutrients.
1. Stay Hydrated
"This can be especially helpful if you're suffering from dry mouth," Avena says. "Finding ways to keep your mouth hydrated and salivating will enhance the flavors of your meals."
Eating hydrating foods, like nutrient-dense plant foods (a la cucumbers, strawberries, greens, tomatoes), helps in supporting normal levels of saliva in the mouth for healthier taste function. Sucking on candies or ice cubes can also help with this.
2. Fancy Up Your Plate
How your meals look on the plate can influence how you perceive they'll taste. The more visually appealing a meal is, such as meals containing an array of bright colors and garnishes or presented on fancy dinnerware, the more enticed you might feel to eat it, Dr. Naidoo says. This can increase the odds of you consuming more nutrients.
3. Strengthen the Flavor Profiles
Adding herbs and spices is a convenient way to enhance the taste of any food not just for your tongue, but for your nose too. "Use strong flavors, like lemon or lime juice, hot pepper or spicy sauces or fresh herbs, like mint or rosemary," Avena says.
Testing out different condiments can be a helpful strategy too — just make sure to check the label and choose condiments with a super-short list of ingredients you can actually recognize, containing no more than 3 to 5 grams of sugar and 5 percent or lower daily value of sodium per serving.
4. Try Different Food Textures
"Increasing the number of textures in a meal increases the sensory stimulation per bite, which could be associated with a more appealing meal," Dr. Naidoo says. "This diversity in texture allows for a variety of food types, with each providing the body with different nutrients for a more well-rounded meal that supports overall physical and mental wellbeing."
Instead of just a blended soup, for instance, you might add shredded chicken, rice and nuts or seeds as a way to make up for your taste buds going bust.
5. Play With Temperature
Satiety is an important determinant of a person's food intake. "It's been suggested that cold foods are perceived as less satiating than hot foods, so for those looking to increase their intake or nutrient consumption, mixing up hot versus cold meals allows you to experiment with satiety and increase consumption as needed," Dr. Naidoo says.
When to Talk to a Doctor About Your Taste Buds
If you have decreased or altered taste without a recent upper respiratory infection, newly diagnosed medical condition, dental infection or cancer treatment (especially if it's been going on longer than a few weeks), "you should see your physician to rule out other causes," Dr. Chan says.
Other subtle signs might be that you aren't as interested in eating as you used to be or you find yourself going overboard on seasonings and sauces to try to compensate.
"Your primary care doctor may have you see a specialist, such as an ENT (ear, nose, throat doctor), to help get to the bottom of it," Avena says. "They may ask you if you're taking any medications, when you first noticed the issue, if you can taste or smell any food at all or if you have allergies or chronic sinus problems, among many other questions."
Because a sudden loss of taste and smell sans other symptoms can also be a sign of COVID-19, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's best to self-isolate if this describes you and get tested to be safe.
- Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: “Inflammation and Taste Disorders”
- Appetite: “Increased Textural Complexity In Food Enhances Satiation”
- Appetite: “The Serving Temperature Effect”
- BMC Neurology: “Taste Disorder In Facial Onset Sensory and Motor Neuronopathy”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Do Your Taste Buds Change as You Get Older?”
- Frontiers in Physiology: “Alteration in Taste Perception in Cancer”
- International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: “Assessing Food Appeal and Desire to Eat”
- Journal of Neurochemistry: “Viral Infection and Smell Loss”
- Mayo Clinic: “Is Loss of Taste and Smell Normal With Aging?”
- National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders: “Taste Disorders”
- National Institutes on Aging: “How Smell and Taste Change As You Age”
- Tobacco Induced Diseases: “Effect of Cigarette Smoke on Gustatory Sensitivity”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Aging Changes In the Senses”
- World Journal of Otorhinolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery: “Influence of Medications on Taste and Smell”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Symptoms of COVID-19"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.