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Mouth & Nose

Introduction

  • Generally, the abilities to taste and smell start to gradually diminish as people age.
  • The abilities to taste with the tongue and to smell with the nose are both needed to enjoy the full range of flavors in food.
  • The tongue can identify only basic tastes e.g. sweet, sour, bitter, and salt.
  • More subtle and complex flavors require the sense of smell.

Sign & Symptoms

  • As people age, the number and the sensitivity of taste buds on the tongue decrease. These will reduce the ability to taste sweet and salt more than bitter and sour.
  • The ability to smell declines slightly. Strong smells remain easy to detect but more subtle smells become more difficult to identify. As a result, many foods tend to taste bitter and foods with subtle smells may taste bland.
  • Sense of smell is further impaired as the nerves responsible for smell deteriorate with aging.
  • In the nose, the mucous membranes lining the nasal passages become thinner and drier, which may increase the risk of nosebleeds and impair the sense of smell.
  • A runny nose and mucus draining into the throat become more common because of changes in the nerves controlling blood vessels in the nasal passages.
  • Cartilage (or soft bone) weakens causing the tip of the nose to droop. This drooping makes the nose appear longer and more humped. These cosmetic changes also contribute to the sense of nasal obstruction that grows more common with aging.
  • Older people may notice that their mouth always feels dry. As people age, less saliva is produced. Dry mouth may also result from a disorder or the use of certain drugs. Dry mouth will further reduce the ability to taste and smell the aromas of food.
  • The muscles in and around the tongue weaken with age, leading to less efficient and prolonged swallowing. These changes can put older people at risk of undernourishment and of inhalation of unswallowed food (aspiration).

Complications

All of these changes contribute to a loss of taste. To compensate for that, older people may add more spices, including salt, into their food. If too much salt is used, it can lead to certain health problems such as high blood pressure.

Last Review : 26 April 2012
Writer : Dr. Ho Bee Kiau
Reviewed : Dr. Cheah Wee Kooi