Thirty percent of older Americans between the ages of 70 and 80 and two out of three older Americans over age 80 experience problems with their sense of smell. Problems with taste, although less common, also frequently occur in older adults. Now accurate, up-to-date information about the important senses of smell and taste is available in a senior-friendly format at www.nihseniorhealth.gov. Visitors to the site can learn about how these senses work, how smell and taste decline with age or illness, and what older adults can do to cope with the loss of these senses.
“Although the senses of smell and taste do decline with age, anyone who experiences significant loss of smell or taste or a sudden change in one of their senses should seek medical attention,” says James F. Battey Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), which developed the content for the taste and smell topics on the NIHSeniorHealth Web site. “Loss of smell or taste can be indicative of an underlying medical condition and should not be ignored. NIHSeniorHealth provides a valuable resource of information on these important issues.”
Because smell and taste are closely linked in the brain, many people mistakenly believe they have a problem with taste, when they are really experiencing a problem with their sense of smell. Problems with smell or taste may cause certain foods to lose their appeal, causing a person to eat too much of the fattier foods and gain weight or too little of the more healthful foods and lose too much weight. Because people frequently try to compensate for diminished smell or taste by adding too much sugar or salt to make food taste better, loss of these senses can cause problems for people with heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other illnesses that require sticking to a specific diet. In addition, the sense of smell often serves as a warning system, as in the case of a fire or gas leak, so people with total or partial loss of smell are almost twice as likely to have certain types of accidents as people who have normal smell.
One of the fastest growing age groups using the Internet, older Americans increasingly turn to the World Wide Web for health information. In fact, 66 percent of “wired” seniors surf for health and medical information when they go online. NIHSeniorHealth, a joint effort of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM), was designed especially with seniors in mind. The site is based on the latest research on cognition and aging. It features short, easy-to-read segments of information that can be accessed in a variety of formats, including various large-print type sizes, open-captioned videos, and an audio version. Additional topics coming to the site include stroke, osteoporosis, and heart disease. The site links to MedlinePlus, NLM’s premier, more detailed site for consumer health information.
The NIA leads the federal effort supporting and conducting research on aging and the health and well-being of older people. The NLM, the world’s largest library of the health sciences, creates and sponsors Web-based health information resources for the public and professionals. The NIDCD supports and conducts biomedical and behavioral research in the normal and disordered processes of hearing, balance, smell, taste, voice, speech, and language, seeking to help those who suffer from communication disorders. All three are components of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.