sense of smell
Aging Well

Smell and Taste: The Spice of Life

Did you know that your sense of smell and taste are connected? As you get older, these senses can change, and you may find that certain foods aren’t as flavorful as they used to be. Changes in smell or taste can also be a sign of a larger problem.

Your Sense of Smell

Smell is an important sense. Certain smells, like your dad’s cologne, can help you recall a memory. Other smells, like smoke from a fire, can alert you to danger. When you can’t smell things you enjoy, like your morning coffee or spring flowers, life may seem dull.

As you get older, your sense of smell may fade. Your sense of smell is closely related to your sense of taste. When you can’t smell, food may taste bland. You may even lose interest in eating.

What Causes Loss of Smell?

Many problems cause a loss of smell that lasts for a short time. This temporary loss of smell may be due to:

  • A cold or flu that causes a stuffy nose. The ability to smell will come back when you’re better.
  • Allergies. Try to stay away from things you’re allergic to, like pollen and pets. Talk to your doctor about how to manage your allergies.
  • A harmless growth (called a polyp) in the nose or sinuses that gives you a runny nose. Having the growth removed may help.
  • Some medications like antibiotics or blood pressure medicine. Ask your doctor if there is another medicine you can take.
  • Radiation, chemotherapy, and other cancer treatments. Your sense of smell may return when treatment stops.

Some things can cause a long-lasting loss of smell. A head injury, for example, can damage the nerves related to smell.

Sometimes, losing your sense of smell may be a sign of a more serious disorder, such as Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. Be sure to tell your doctor about any change in your sense of smell.

Smells Can Keep You Safe

It’s important to be aware of odors around you. You need to be able to smell:

  • Smoke—check your smoke detectors once a year to make sure they work.
  • Gas leaks—make sure you have a gas detector in your home.
  • Spoiled food—throw out food that’s been in the refrigerator too long.
  • Household chemicals—make sure there is fresh air where you live and work.

Your Sense of Taste

There are tiny taste buds inside your mouth—on your tongue, in your throat, even on the roof of your mouth. What we call “flavor” is based on five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory. Along with how it tastes, how food smells is also part of what makes up its flavor.

When food tastes bland, many people try to improve the flavor by adding more salt or sugar. This may not be healthy for older people, especially if you have medical problems like high blood pressure or diabetes (high blood sugar).

People who have lost some of their sense of taste may not eat the foods they need to stay healthy. This can lead to other issues such as: