Photo by Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving
Taste or smell, which came first the turkey or the egg? In my last post, I talked about how the two senses smell and taste seemed to go hand in hand. I can’t even write about one without mentioning the other. But they are two distant senses that have a purpose all their own.
Speaking of turkey, does it get any better than a Norman Rockwell painting to depict a mouth-watering meal? I don’t know about you, but when I smell that turkey in the oven getting golden brown my mouth begins to water with the goodness of the flavors yet to touch my tongue. That’s a good thing for us older folks because as we age, we produce less saliva, sometimes creating a dry mouth which reduces our sense of taste. So, which one comes first? The smell, because you can’t taste without it, and if we can’t taste we lose the enjoyment of eating. That’s not a good thing because we all know we need to eat to survive.
Here’s how it works.
We have about 9000 taste buds on the tongue. These taste buds sense only 4 basic flavors: bitter, sour salty and sweet. But something magical happens when those senses roll around on all those taste buds creating a combination of savory flavors. As we age our taste buds begin to shrink and we produce less saliva. This happens very slowly over time. By the age of 30, we have 245 taste buds on that one tiny elevation alone. That’s amazing. But, by the age of 70, that number decreases to approximately 88. One article said that sweet and salty taste is the first affected, while another article said it was the salty and sour taste that goes first. One of the signs that we’re losing our sense of taste is by adding more salt to our food or sugar to enhance it. Too much salt can affect our blood pressure and too much sugar can add unwanted pounds. There is one plus to not being able to taste the full flavor of food and that is that it opens up a door to some of the strong-tasting-veggies we couldn’t stand in our younger years. I know I find myself enjoying the healthier veggies such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and peppers just to name a few. These are some of the most nutritious heart and brain health foods we can eat at our age.
What’s interesting is that the sense of taste appears not to decline as much from aging as it does from other factors such as smoking, poor oral hygiene, dentures rubbing on the tongue. Certain medical conditions such as diabetes and cancers as well as their treatment can affect the taste buds. There are some things we can do to lessen the decline of our taste and asking our doctor for help is the first place to start.
With all this in mind, I find myself reflecting back on my own parents. While they were divorced and no longer lived together the one thing most people would remember about them was how much they enjoyed eating. In the last few years of my Mom’s life, I think eating was probably the only thing she really looked forward to each day. She died when she was in her 70’s. My Dad, on the other hand, died at the age of 79. On that particular day, his wife couldn’t stop thinking of how much he was raving over his lunch. The grapes were exceptionally sweet, his turkey sandwich had such rich flavors and the dessert his wife had brought home he was going to savor it a little later in the day. She said he must have eating it right before he died maybe about an hour after she went back to work. He had a heart attack and passed away quickly. It was almost as if his body knew it would be his last supper and all his senses were enhanced somehow. This makes me think that maybe because the loss of taste happens so slowly over time that we don’t really notice it the way we do other more obvious senses like our sight. However, when we do lose it for whatever reason we truly do lose the enjoyment of eating.
 Aging changes in the senses
 Making Sense of Sensory Losses as We Age
For more information see www.ag.ndsu.edu