The Effects of Sense of Smell & Taste on Seniors Nutritional Intake

As we age our sense of smell and taste begin to change which can affect nutritional intake.  It is important for seniors and family caregivers to understand how smell and taste effect nutritional habits so that they can work with these changes and maintain a balanced diet. In this article we would like to offer some information on the effects of sense of smell and taste in the elderly on nutritional intake.

There are a number of different illnesses that can cause changes in smell but in many cases changes in smell are just a part of the ageing process.  Ageing often causes a decrease in the number of nerve cells in the olfactory system which in turn causes a decline in a person’s ability to smell and makes it harder to differentiate between smells. Smells are known to trigger a person’s appetite and without a sense of smell seniors will find that they are less hungry.  Many people smell fresh food coming out of the oven and think about eating but with changes in the ability to smell fresh food might smell bad or have no smell at all.

Changes in taste happen slowly over a period of time and begin around age 40 for women and around age 50 for men. After age 60 many people begin to experience changes in sensitivity as well.  Changes in taste can also be caused by a number of other things but most commonly seniors will find that their changes in taste are caused by dry mouth or by their dentures.  The body processes less saliva with age which often causes the mouth to become very dry.  Having a dry mouth can affect one’s sense of taste.  Tooth loss and dentures are another common cause of changes in taste in the elderly because both things can make chewing more difficult.  Seniors should talk with their doctor to find out the exact cause of their problem if they are concerned that their sense of taste has changed drastically.

Changes in smell and taste are often overlooked because they are not considered to be crucial to daily life but they can cause major changes in nutritional intake. Changes in taste and smell often cause a decrease in appetite which can cause irregular eating habits. Poor eating habits can cause nutrient deficiencies, weight loss and even malnutrition. Changes in taste can also be dangerous because they can cause seniors to eat foods that they would not normally eat since they cannot completely taste what they are eating.  Many seniors find that they have a decreased sensitivity to salty foods which can cause them to eat more foods that are high in sodium because they do not realize how salty their food is. The same is often true when it comes to sugar which puts seniors at risk for diabetes and hypertension because they are taking in more salt and sugar than they should.  Changes in smell and taste can also cause seniors to not recognize when food is spoiled because they cannot detect any changes in the smell or taste of their food.  Eating spoiled food can cause food poisoning which can make seniors very sick and uncomfortable.

The best thing for seniors to do if they notice changes in their sense of smell or taste is to try new foods.  Seniors can try foods that they have never tried before or foods that they might not have liked in the past and experiment with new recipes.  It can also be helpful for seniors to experiment with new seasonings to add extra flavor to their food. Low sodium seasonings are the best option because as previously mentioned many seniors have a decreased sensitivity to salty food and will not notice if they are eating high amounts of sodium. Seniors can also work with a nutritionist to plan healthy meals that are full of flavor to keep their diet from being bland and tasteless. Seniors should monitor their weight on a regular basis to make sure that they are not under eating and losing weight.

The most important thing for seniors and family caregivers to remember is that changes in taste and smell should not be overlooked.  Even if these changes are not critical they can make an impact on nutritional intake which is very important for seniors to monitor.  Seniors are prone to nutrient deficiencies and changes in smell and taste can easily cause seniors to develop nutrient deficiencies.  Family caregivers can help their loved ones by stressing the importance of proper nutrition and by making sure that they maintain a regular eating schedule and a balanced diet.  Seniors that notice drastic changes in their sense of smell or taste should talk with their doctor to find out the exact cause and discuss any possible treatment options.

Other related articles in our home care blog:

Nutritional Risks: Warning Signs of Poor Senior Nutrition

Mealtime Tips for Dementia Caregivers

Nutrition Tips for Seniors