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Health Answers

Why am I losing my ability to taste, and can I prevent it?

Q. Why am I losing my ability to taste, and can I prevent it?

A. What people perceive as a loss in their ability to taste is often really a loss of smell. Your taste buds detect five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory). “If you can taste sugar or salt, it’s probably not your gustatory system that’s affected,” says Beverly Cowart, a researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center. If you struggle to perceive or distinguish flavors like chocolate and vanilla, then the problem is with your olfactory system, which is responsible for complex flavors.

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A common and treatable cause of smell loss is any sort of chronic sinus problem, which Cowart says should be examined by an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Smell loss can also result from viral infections or head injuries, and can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. But both smell and taste systems are vulnerable to damage over time, and age-related loss of smell tends to be more common and noticeable than loss of taste. Loss of smell in older age can change people’s food preferences and lead them to eat less.

Smell loss that occurs with aging is usually a product of damage to the nerves carrying olfactory signals to the brain, and is not treatable. But Cowart says that recent studies suggest people may improve their sense of smell with practice. She recommends focusing attention on distinguishing smells each day. “For some people it does seem to improve function,” she says.

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