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Smell and Taste Disorders Added to NIH Web Site for Seniors

Senior woman smelling flower

They may not be as serious as cancer or heart disease, but problems with smell and taste can make life miserable. Just ask the more than 250,000 Americans who visit their physician every year because of a "chemosensory" disorder.

"People with a smell or taste disorder really have a lower quality of life," says Dr. Gary Beauchamp [pronounced BEE-cham], director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, and an NIDCD grantee. "They can’t fully enjoy the simple aspects of normal life, like eating and drinking, and this can be a real challenge for them. For some of these people, enjoying food and beverages may be one of the few pleasures they have in life."

Who are these people? Adults over the age of 60 are the most likely candidates to have a problem with smell and taste, with a loss of smell occurring more frequently than a loss of taste. Nearly one-third of all Americans between the ages of 70 and 80 have a problem with smell as do about two out of three people over the age of 80. Although the causes are not well understood, colds and other upper respiratory infections, chronic sinusitis and head injuries are the most common causes of smell disorders. Taste disorders may be caused by aging, overall poor health, taking certain medications, and possibly infections.

To help seniors learn more about smell and taste problems, NIDCD has added these topics to NIHSeniorHealth.gov, a Web site co-sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. The Web site features senior-friendly elements such as large print; short, easy-to-read sentences; and an audio function that reads text aloud. Each health topic includes general background information, open-captioned videos, quizzes, and frequently asked questions.

Because the two senses are closely related, many people confuse smell and taste disorders. A problem with taste may actually be a problem with smell in disguise. (Most of us know what it’s like to lose the ability to taste food when our noses are stopped up by a cold).

Taste occurs because taste buds on our tongue, throat, and roof of the mouth have special cells that can identify five different sensations: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (savory). At birth we have about 10,000 taste buds. By age 50 that number may begin to decrease, which may explain why some older people prefer salty or spicy foods. People with taste disorders often use flavor enhancers to make their meals more palatable.

Smell and taste disorders may not seem serious, but the loss of one or both could put an older person in a potentially hazardous situation. According to Dr. Beauchamp, who is featured in the Older Adults and Smell Loss video clip on the NIHSeniorHealth.gov Web site, smell lets us know when something is wrong in our environment, such as when food has spoiled or when a gas leak has occurred. Taste also protects us by helping us select foods that are healthful over those that might be bad for us. (For example, some plants that are toxic may have a bitter taste.) "The ability to identify food is especially important for people with food allergies," Dr. Beauchamp says.

He adds, "For some older people, especially the very old, a smell or taste problem can be devastating. They no longer want to eat or drink or maintain a nutritious diet and they can easily slip into depression." Researchers at Monell and other NIDCD-supported institutions are looking at ways to restore smell and taste in people who have lost these senses. "We’re trying to understand at the molecular level why aging takes its toll on smell and taste, and specifically why certain medications exacerbate the problem. This work may eventually lead to new treatments for individuals with chemosensory disorders," says James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., NIDCD director.

In the meantime, it’s important for older people to remember that most cases of smell and taste loss are treatable, and some may even resolve spontaneously. Consulting a family physician can help older adults identify the cause of the problem. A correct diagnosis is important and provides a much-needed reassurance that the smell or taste problem is not imaginary, adds Dr. Beauchamp.

"Some people find support groups helpful. Others prefer to use online bulletin boards to share their experiences and come up with various solutions. Regardless of the outcome, older people need to remember that they are not alone. There are thousands of people who are in the same situation," he says.

For more information on smell and taste disorders in older people, see the NIH SeniorHealth.gov Web site at http://NIHSeniorHealth.gov. For general information on smell and taste, see the NIDCD Web site at www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/smelltaste/.

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