While we like to think that our palates get more refined as we grow older, it seems a little counterintuitive when our grandparents unload an entire shaker of salt (or bottle of hot sauce—IYKYK) on their food before even trying it. So, do they simply like their meals as salty as the sea, or is something larger at play here? According to Inna A. Husain, MD, the medical director of laryngology at Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana, our aging taste buds might be the ones to blame. Here's what to know about they ways our palate (and our ability to taste foods) changes with age.
How taste buds change as we age, according to a medical doctor
"It is not uncommon for folks to notice changes in taste with age," says Dr. Husain. "Our taste buds begin to deteriorate as we grow older."
The cause is multifaceted. "It's related to the fact that the overall number of taste buds, or papillae, in our mouths tends to diminish with age, and the fact that we're less able to regenerate injured papillae,” Dr. Husain says. This can cause existing papillae to shrink and become less effective overall.
In terms of when this tends to occur in life, while everyone is different, Dr. Husain notes that research has suggested that women do tend to notice a decline in taste before men. “The literature varies, but this decline seems to happen earlier in women than men. In women seems to happen in the 40s to 50s; in men 50s to 60s,” she explains.
And although we like to think that as we grow older, we get less picky due to our open-mindedness when it comes to trying new kinds of food, this isn't exactly the case. By the time we reach adulthood, Dr. Husain says that we have almost half the number of taste buds we did when we were first born. “We are born with around 9000 taste buds and have about 4600 in adulthood,” she points out. (Wait, does this mean that stinky cheese might taste better as an adult because we're simply not able to taste it as well?)
And in case you were wondering, our taste begins to develop even before we’re born. “From a taste development standpoint, we think taste cells form around seven to eight weeks of gestation, and sense of taste is well-developed at birth but does continue to develop over time,” Dr. Husain says. Newborns, she adds, are able to react to sweet, bitter, and sour tastes, but salt preference comes a few months later. However, as we age, sweet and salty perceptions seem to be the first to go, followed by bitter and sour. This is why we often see our grandparents over-seasoning food, which Dr. Husain notes can have negative health implications. "Using more salt due to taste loss which can affect blood pressure negatively, especially for elderly folks," she says.
Keep in mind that as we age, our sense of smell can also begin to deteriorate, as the two senses are closely intertwined. “In fact, it is interesting to note that it is often hard to differentiate taste loss from smell loss. What's more, the general consensus is that smell loss plays a greater role in what we perceive as taste loss than taste loss itself,” Dr. Husain explains. This is because taste buds are chemosensory receptors that, when activated, send a signal via nerve fibers to the central nervous system (brain). "For the sense of smell, or olfaction, odor molecules enter your nose, are absorbed, and activate the olfactory nerve, which sends signals straight to your cerebral cortex. Olfaction, interestingly, is processed by areas of the brain that deal with memory and emotions. The result of olfaction and taste together create what we perceive as flavor. This is best demonstrated when we have a cold or nasal congestion, and taste is reduced,” Dr. Husain says.
Can we stop taste buds from aging?
Ultimately the answer is no; however, some factors can trigger or exacerbate the loss of taste. “Unfortunately, [there’s] no direct way to deter the natural aging process of taste buds. However, to preserve the sense of taste, it can help to try to manage issues with chronic sinusitis or rhinitis—think allergies or sinus disease—to maintain the olfactory pathway. And while every person is different, things like dry mouth from natural aging and medication use can also have an impact on taste,” Dr. Husain says. In terms of preventative measures, she recommends trying dry mouth oral lubricants as excessive dryness in the mouth can impact taste receptors.
Dr. Husain also notes that it's important to remember that a loss of taste can be triggered by something and/or be temporary. “If taste loss is due to something acute, like a viral illness or medication use, these changes can often be reversed once the triggering effect is removed. Medications commonly associated with taste loss include antibiotics—such as azithromycin and ciprofloxacin—cholesterol medications, and blood pressure medications,” she says.
What to do if you suffer from loss of taste
“Generally, if suffering from taste loss, the recommendation is to focus on bold flavors. This will not necessarily preserve taste but is used to address the quality of life implications of taste loss,” Dr. Husain says. So, what’s one food that she recommends? Well, according to her, kimchi has a fantastic flavor profile for those suffering from taste loss—as it’s spicy, crunchy, and packed with gut-healthy benefits, too.
She also encourages focusing on foods with versatile textures, which can help mask the sense of taste loss, and says to avoid temperature extremes when possible. That being said, if you happen to burn your tongue on hot soup, Dr. Husain says that taste buds in most adults regenerate every 10 to 14 days. Phew!
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