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How Touch, Taste & Smell Change with Age

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Older man enjoying a bowl of soup

It’s common knowledge that hearing and vision often decline as a result of aging. But what about the other three senses – touch, taste and smell?

“All five senses will typically fade to some degree as we get older and may present both health-related and functional challenges,” says internal medicine specialist Lauren Hadney, DO. “While there is often less concern about these types of sensory loss when compared to vision and hearing, it’s important to be aware. These changes can affect your health, quality of life and pose safety issues, especially in older adults.”

Fortunately, there are ways to manage changes to touch, taste and smell and minimize the impact on your daily life.

Touch

The skin is the largest organ of the human body. It contains millions of nerve endings that allow you to perceive a variety of textures and experience a range of sensations including pain, warmth and cold. Perhaps most importantly, touch is an essential component of giving and receiving care and comfort – whether it be with a child, a spouse, a parent or a family pet.

“Loss of tactile sensation may occur with age due to a gradual decrease in the number of nerve endings in the skin and tissue loss beneath the skin. This can decrease the sensitivity of the skin and make it looser and less elastic. Sometimes, decreased blood flow to the hands, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease or mini-strokes can also be contributing factors,” says Dr. Hadney.

Although the ability to touch and feel may be taken for granted, when diminished or lost, it can greatly affect emotional and physical health. If you can’t perceive pain, pressure or extreme cold, you may not react appropriately to prevent physical harm. And if you can’t feel a gentle, comforting touch, it may lead to feelings of isolation and sadness.

Some tips to keep your skin healthy and preserve the sense of touch include:

  • Stay active to promote good blood circulation
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Stay hydrated
  • Keep your skin clean and moisturized

Always talk to your doctor if a diminished sense of touch is affecting your quality of life.

Taste

Adults have about 10,000 taste buds, primarily on the tongue. Each tiny bump contains a collection of specialized cells that help detect flavors in the foods you eat, including sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory. Your sense of taste allows you to enjoy food and alerts you to food that tastes “funny” and may be unsafe to eat.

“As we get older, our taste buds begin to shrink and decline in number,” says Dr. Hadney. “In addition, the mouth produces less saliva over time. A drier mouth and fewer taste buds lead to a gradual decline in our ability to taste food. Age-related nerve degeneration may also affect the sensitivity of the taste buds.”

Other common reasons for a diminished sense of taste include:

  • Medications like antibiotics, cholesterol and blood pressure medicine can sometimes affect how food tastes. Others, like antidepressants, can make your mouth dry, which can also change how food tastes and make it hard to swallow. Always talk to your doctor if you think the medications you take are affecting your sense of taste. Do not stop taking your medicine.
  • Gum disease or denture problems can change the way food tastes. Excellent oral hygiene that includes frequent brushing and flossing will help. See your dentist every six months and discuss any persistent taste-related issues you may be having.
  • Smoking and alcohol can change how food tastes. Quit smoking and reduce or eliminate alcohol use – not only will making these two lifestyle changes enhance your sense of taste, it will improve your overall health.
  • Certain infections like COVID-19 can lead to a temporary loss of taste. If the loss persists after all other symptoms have resolved, talk to your doctor.
  • Cancer treatments can temporarily affect your sense of taste.

Losing your sense of taste can have a significant impact on your health. If food no longer tastes good, you may try to improve the flavor by adding more salt or sugar. This can contribute to health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. In addition, when eating is no longer enjoyable it can lead to weight loss and malnutrition, particularly in the elderly.

Try using spices, herbs and a variety of colorful vegetables to make foods more appealing. If loss of taste persists or worsens, it should always be evaluated by a physician.

Smell

Your ability to smell odors – both pleasant and unpleasant – originates in nerve endings high up in the nasal cavity. Beyond enabling you to “smell the roses,” a keen sense of smell can play a vital role in safety by warning of potential dangers like smoke from a fire, a gas leak, spoiled food and hazardous household chemicals. Along with the sense of taste, the sense of smell also stimulates the appetite and helps you enjoy your food.

“As we age, the nerve endings in the nose begin to degenerate and mucus production slows down,” says Dr. Hadney. “One function of nasal mucus is to ‘capture’ odors and keep them in the nose long enough to be detected by the nerve endings. With fewer nerve endings and less mucus, the sense of smell diminishes, especially after age 70.”

Aside from aging, a chronic loss of smell may also occur after a head injury or as a symptom of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease.

Temporary loss of smell can occur in people of all ages for the following reasons:

  • Nasal congestion due to cold, flu or allergies.
  • Polyps in the nose or sinuses. Removing these growths may improve your sense of smell.
  • Some medications like antibiotics or blood pressure medicine. Talk to your doctor if you think the medications you take are affecting your sense of smell. Do not stop taking your medicine.
  • Infection with COVID-19 will sometimes lead to loss of smell. If the loss persists after all other symptoms have resolved, talk to your doctor.
  • Some cancer treatments can temporarily reduce your sense of smell.
  • Smoking causes inflammation and damage to the delicate tissues inside the nose and can diminish your sense of smell.

Come to Your Senses, Talk to Your Doctor

The five senses work together to help you experience the world, identify danger and enjoy life. Although gradual changes are normal and to be expected, a sudden decline in vision, hearing, touch, taste or smell could be a sign of a serious medical condition and should be evaluated by a doctor.

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University Hospitals has a wide network of primary care and ENT (ear, nose and throat) providers at convenient locations across the region. Our experts have the knowledge and expertise to diagnose and treat a full spectrum of conditions including sensory loss of any kind.

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