“Everything tastes flat” – Taste and smell changes in the elderly

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The sense of smell and taste are important in the enjoyment of food. By tasting and smelling the food, we know how delicious a meal is or how pleasant the aroma of a food is. However, with increasing age, older people have decline in these senses which can affect the pleasure and satisfaction that they can obtain from food.

Sensitivity to the four tastes often declines after the age of 60. Usually, the taste of saltiness and sweetness are first lost, followed by the taste of bitterness and sourness. Several other factors may also lead to the decline in sense of taste, such as smoking, poor oral hygiene, dentures, medications, and certain medical conditions such as diabetes and cancer changes. In addition, the decline in saliva production that causes dry mouth also affects the sense of taste.

The sense of smell starts to diminish especially after the age of 70 and it may be related to the loss of nerve endings in the nose and to less mucus being produced in the nose. The sense of smell is largely responsible for producing the sensation of taste – taste sensations depend on the ability to smell and it is often the odor that makes taste recognizable.

Changes in the ability to taste and smell have important consequences for nutrition. When food no longer tastes and smells as good, people tend to lose interest in eating, which often leads to malnutrition and weight loss. Whereas, some will overeat in an attempt to achieve a favorable taste sensation, or use more salt, sugar, or spices to compensate for lack of taste.

Here are some useful ways to overcome the problems:

  • Serve food attractively: How food looks on the plate will often determine whether it is eaten. Make the dish more attractive by using colorful garnishes and serve the foods in bowl or plate with contrast color.
  • Texture: Texture sometimes helps substitute for taste and smell. Blended foods are the most difficult to “taste.” For example, serve the chunky pumpkin instead of blended pumpkin; don’t cook vegetables until they are mushy.
  • Serve food at the right temperature: In general, serving foods warm rather than cold enhances the aroma.
  • Enhance the flavours with herbs and spices: Certain seasonings can give the sensation that a food tastes sweeter without adding sugar.

    For example:

    • Adding or increasing vanilla or cinnamon in a recipe makes foods taste sweeter than they really are.
    • Cardamon gives an aromatic, pungent, sweet flavor.
    • Nutmeg has a sweet, warm, and spicy flavor.
    • Ginger gives a hot, spicy, sweet flavor.
    • Mint provides an aromatic sweet flavor with a cool aftertaste.
    • Caraway, anise, and coriander have a sweet undertone.


  1. MedlinePlus: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/004013.html