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Sensory Changes in the Elderly

The process of aging begins when we are born and continues throughout our lives. As we age, our body goes through gradual changes, including changes in our senses. Sensation is the process that allows our brain to take in information from our surrounding environment through our eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin. The normal aging process causes gradual losses to each of our senses. Generally, these changes begin around 50 years of age and become more noticeable in subsequent decades of life. Impairments in smell and taste are among the primary reasons for deficiencies and imbalances in the dietary intake of older adults. Food is no longer interesting and the enjoyment of eating is lost.  Furthermore, without the simple pleasures of taste and smell sensations, overall quality of life is greatly reduced. Therefore, it is important to understand how our senses change as we age so we can provide the best care possible to our aging population.  

The Effect of Aging on Smell and Taste

Problems with our sense of smell increases as we get older, and are more commonly seen in men than women. Loss of smell in older adults may be related to a decrease in the number of sensory cells that detect aromas. These cells routinely die and are replaced by new cells. However, in older individuals, the replacement process does not work as well. Similarly, as we age, the total number of taste buds we have also decreases. For example, at the age of 30, a person has approximately 245 taste buds on each of the tiny elevations, or papilla, on the tongue. By age 70, the number of taste buds decreases to approximately 88. And each remaining taste bud begins to lose mass, decreasing in size. Another possible cause for loss of smell and taste as we age is due to less secretions being produced in both the nose and the mouth. Mucus helps odours stay long enough to be detected by sensory cells in the nose. And less saliva causes dry mouth, which can affect your sense of taste.

How can loss of smell and taste be recognized?

  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Regular complaints about food tasting bland
  • Excessive use of spices and seasonings
  • Comments about food tasting sour or bitter
  • Inability to identify food by taste

Ways to Promote Food Intake

Many people are surprised to learn that we recognize flavours largely through our sense of smell. Smell and taste are closely linked senses. It is common for older adults who lose their sense of smell to say that food has lost its taste. In older people, the normal decline in the sense of smell shifts the taste of food toward being bland and boring. This is why people often believe they have a taste problem. Currently, there is no known treatments for taste or smell losses. But once limitations are recognized, adjustments or adaptations to the resident’s environment can help make up for the losses.

  • Make food look attractive - Include different colours and shapes, such as bright vegetables and fruits, to make food more engaging
  • Serve food warm instead of cold - warming up food enhances the aroma
  • Add texture to food - texture can sometimes substitute for taste and smell
  • Enhance the aromas of foodtry using flavour extracts to help make flavours and aromas more pronounced
  • Season food - use different herbs and spices to enhance the flavours in dishes
  • Encourage resident to chew food thoroughly - chewing food longer allows for more contact between pieces of food and taste/smell receptors
  • Encourage resident to alternate bites of different food - switching from food to food while eating maximizes the amount of taste and flavour
  • If assisting in feeding, do not mix food togethermixing food makes it difficult for a person to separate flavours as they all become muddled together
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