Medical Mysteries

The steak is OK—you’re the problem

Written by Fred Hilton

Aging can be tasteless when your buds fade away.

Story: Fred Hilton


You just spent big bucks for a luscious-looking filet at that fancy-schmancy restaurant you go to on special occasions. Sadly, the steak didn’t taste all that good. You’ve noticed that lots of things don’t taste as good as they used to. You’re not cursed. The fault is not in the stars but in yourself—you’re getting older.

The effects of growing older are all too apparent. You know that your knees, eyesight, and hearing have declined over the years, along with various other parts of your tired old body. Sadly, you can now add your sense of taste to that growing list.

When we’re born, we each have around 10,000 taste buds. They are replaced every 10 days or so, but after age 50, they don’t regenerate as quickly. An older person may have only about 5,000 taste buds.

Contrary to what many of us think, those little bumps on your tongue aren’t taste buds. Those are called papillae, and your taste buds are located deep inside them. Taste buds are little clusters of 50 to 100 cells. They pick up sensory information and send it to the brain, letting you know if something is sweet, sour, bitter, or salty. Taste buds aren’t all located on your tongue. Some are on the insides of your cheeks and some are on the roof of your mouth.

Compounding the problem caused by the loss of taste buds is a diminished sense of smell that accompanies aging. When your ability to detect particular aromas declines, you’re limited to basic taste sensations picked up by your tongue and they won’t be as strong or as complex.

“As you chew food, the flavor is released, and you smell it through the back of the nose,” says Dr. Erin O’Brien, a rhinologist at the Mayo Clinic. “If you’re eating strawberry ice cream, your tongue will tell you it’s sweet, but it won’t know the flavor. The nose tells you it’s strawberry. That’s the difference between taste and flavor.”

Loss of your sense of taste can have serious consequences for your health. Of your four taste sensations—sweet, salty, sour, and bitter—sweet and salty are often the first to go, so you might be tempted to over-salt your food, which could cause your blood pressure to rise and put your heart health at risk.

Aging isn’t the only thing that threatens your taste buds. Smoking, pesticides, other chemicals or additives, some drugs, poor nutrition, and eating processed junk foods also can damage them.


“When Aging Steals Your Sense of Taste,” by Beth W. Orenstein, medically reviewed by Dr. Lindsey Marcellin, Senior Health Center, Everyday Health.  //

“Do Your Taste Buds Change as You Age?” by Dr. Brent Ridge, Care2, April 15, 2009.//

“Loss of Taste and Smell, How to Revive Taste Buds on the Tongue,” Growing Raw. //

“Aging Gracefully: Changes in the Taste Buds and Sense of Smell,” Comfort Keepers, July 2, 2014. //

“Why You Might Be Losing Your Sense of Taste as You Age,” by Bill Ward, Huffington Post. //


About the author

Fred Hilton

Fred Hilton spent thirty-six years as the chief public relations officer/spokesman for James Madison University in Virginia and ten years prior as a reporter and editor for The Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Virginia. He is now happily retired in The Villages with his interior designer wife, Leta, their Cadillac Escalade golf cart, and their dog, Paris. (Yes, that makes her Paris Hilton).

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