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Vol. LVII, No. 17
August 26, 2005
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Smell, Taste Disorders Added to Web Site

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, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. "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 ones most likely to have a problem with smell and taste, with loss of smell occurring more frequently than loss of taste. Nearly one-third of all Americans between the ages of 70 and 80 have a problem with smell and about two out of three people over the age of 80 do.

It is normal for smell and taste to gradually decline in older people. Taste disorders occur more frequently among older adults who are taking several medications, while colds and upper respiratory infections are the most common cause of smell disorders, followed by medications and head injuries.

Even though chemosensory loss is common among seniors, the causes are still not well understood. To help seniors learn more about smell and taste problems, NIDCD has added these two topics to NIHSeniorHealth.gov, a web site with formats and topics tailored to the needs of older people, co-sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine.

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, mouth and throat 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, but by age 50 that number may begin to decrease, which may explain why some older people like saltier and spicier 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 Beauchamp, smell lets us know when something in our environment is wrong such as spoiled food or noxious fumes from a gas leak. Taste also protects us by helping us select foods that are healthy and good for us over those that might be bad. (Some plants that are toxic may have a bitter taste, for example). "The ability to identify food is especially important for people with food allergies," he says.

"And," 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've 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 Dr. James Battey, 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 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 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, visit http://NIHSeniorHealth.gov. For general information on smell and taste, see http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/smelltaste/index.asp.

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