Do people lose taste buds as they age? Unfortunately, yes. About 10,000 taste buds line an adult's tongue, throat and mouth, perceiving sweet, salty, sour and bitter. As the years pass, we lose some of them, and the taste buds that remain grow less sensitive. Salty and sweet tastes are usually the first to go. But it's not hopeless. According to Robert Ibgui, executive chef at Aventura's Classic Residence by Hyatt in Miami, a few changes in seasoning, and a few ingredient substitutions, can jazz up any meal.
It's not just the loss of taste buds that make it harder to enjoy food with age. Compounding the problem, older adults also begin to lose their sense of smell, a vital enhancer of taste. Dietitians say the consequences can become apparent as early as age 50, particularly for people who are prone to sinus and respiratory infections or take certain medications.
By the time seniors hit their 70s and 80s, most palates have dulled and favorite foods simply don't taste as good.
"The rate of decline is very individual, but it happens to everybody," says Chris Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian who teaches about nutrition and aging at Georgia State University. "For the older old it's a fact of life."
When food becomes less appealing, seniors tend to eat smaller meals or skip them altogether. They begin to lose weight, which can lead to frailty.
"Since it doesn't happen overnight, it's not always noticeable at first," says Dr. Kent Holtorf, who specializes in age-management medicine at The Holtorf Medical Center in San Francisco. "Usually, if they talk about it when they come in, they'll mention it as a secondary symptom." Among the factors that exacerbate the loss of taste perception are smoking, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and medications including antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs and some arthritis remedies. Dietary restrictions to deal with hypertension and diabetes further complicate meal prep. Rosenbloom tailors her advice on issues like fat intake to the client's age. "If they're 80 and on statins to lower cholesterol, I wouldn't be as restrictive as I would for someone in their 60s with the same medical issues," she says. "You have more upside in your 60s, but if you're hearty enough to live into your 80s, you don't want to be so restrictive that you turn them off." Says Holtorf: "People think of bland food for the elderly, but it's quite the opposite . . . More pizazz in their food, more spices, more herbs." Chef Ibgui knows this all too well, as he must accommodate diners with a variety of tastes and health issues, from those living in skilled nursing units to couples in independent apartments.
His menu options are low in fat, salt and sugar. Any frying is done in heart-healthy oil. All the food is made from scratch, including sauces, soups and desserts, with in-season fruits and vegetables. One favorite salad: avocado slices tossed with grapefruit segments and served over spinach that has been lightly dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. "It is the type of food that is healthy for everyone," Ibgui says. The chef also likes to balance his menu: fried chicken, for example, is served with a hefty side of steamed vegetables. There are healthful ways to compensate for fading taste buds at the table, as well. "I don't do salt," says Evelyn Cohan, 85, one of Ibgui's diners. "But I do use pepper liberally. It's a great substitute." Pearl Levan, 92, watches her diet, too, but splurges on the occasional birthday luncheon cake and makes sure to eat with friends. "It's a social event for us." Experts say the social aspect of mealtime is particularly important for seniors, who often live alone and feel isolated. So is the visual presentation -- hence Classic Residence's emphasis on setting an attractive table. "You have to think eye appeal as well as taste appeal," Rosenbloom says. "The physical way a plate looks is important as are the different colors and textures used. Eating should be a whole experience."