As humans age, our sense of taste diminishes, though often this loss of taste relates directly to a loss of smell, as the two senses are closely connected. As we grow older, the nerves that send taste signals to the brain naturally degenerate, as do our taste buds; this reduced sense of taste is called hypogeusia [source: Sirven]. These changes are an expected part of the aging process.
As we age, a loss of taste can exist independent of issues with the ability to smell, and may be caused by normal changes in taste cell membranes. While loss of taste in older people may be part of the standard aging process, it can also be indicative of other problems and should be evaluated by a physician. Elderly patients may experience diminished taste due to dry mouth, a side-effect of certain prescription medications, problems with dental appliances such as dentures, gum disease or vitamin deficiencies.
Often, people who complain about a diminished sense of taste are actually suffering from a loss of smell, because smell affects the ability to distinguish and enjoy different flavors. That said, our sense of smell is determined by our first cranial nerve, while our sense of taste is determined by our seventh, ninth and 10th cranial nerves [source: Sirven]. To discover to what degree a loss of taste is being caused by problems with the sense of smell, doctors will test a patient's ability to taste different flavors such as salty, sour, bitter or sweet. Our taste buds distinguish these flavors, while other more detailed flavors are derived through a combination of taste and smell. If a patient is able to differentiate among the basic flavors as they're placed on his or her tongue, it's likely that the patient's issue involves a loss of smell, which is affecting his or her ability to taste.
Diminished taste can lead to trouble, especially among elderly people; it often leads to a decreased appetite and lack of nutrition, as people may lose the will to eat when they cannot enjoy their food.
Her taste buds will only get wiser with age. (iStockphoto.com/RoyalFive)
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