Woman feeding a man grapes in a vineyard.

If you’ve ever spent some time around elderly and senior folk or count yourself among this group, you’ve likely noticed that they/you/we very much enjoy sweets. It’s not just a coincidence, either. It’s something that comes with age. There are a couple of factors that lead to an increased fondness of sweets with age and it’s time to get to know them.

1. Taste goes out the door

Our tongue’s taste buds allow us to taste a wide spectrum of delicious and non-delicious things. They can detect a couple of key different tastes. You have sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. These four tastes are pretty important for our perception of food. They combine in different concentrations and intensities to give us all the different food tastes we’ve tried over the years.

Unfortunately, they don’t last forever. It’s estimated that we have around ten thousand to fifteen thousand taste buds in our prime. This allows us to get a good grasp on the things we prefer to eat and taste. However, these taste buds slowly atrophy and lose their function as we get older. Around one third are left by the time we hit our seventies. As a result, food doesn’t quite pack the same punch as it did before. With fewer taste buds, everything starts to taste pretty similar. This can have a significant impact on cravings. 

Sweet is arguably the most impactful taste of all. It’s the first taste most people are exposed to as children and it’s no secret that it’s pretty important for our development. Kids crave energy and like sugary sweets quite a bit. Even as other tastes decline, sweet remains the predominant taste in our mouths.

2. Smell isn’t too far behind

There’s no doubt that smell is an important aspect of our sense of taste. We’ve all experimented with this at least once. When you plug your nose, it becomes extremely difficult to discern different tastes. As long as two different things have the same texture, you will think that they are basically the same food. 

It’s no surprise then that our sense of taste sees further decline as we get older. Nerve endings tend to suffer with age, no matter where they’re located. The nerve endings in our nose are particularly sensitive to this degradation. After age sixty, the loss of smell slowly becomes evident and it starts affecting taste as well. Without a good sense of smell, you can expect the taste buds on your tongue to be a lot less effective. 

There are other factors that also affect our sense of smell. Among the most impactful ones is smoking. The smoke directly damages our nostrils and the nerve endings within them. This makes the nerve damage become prominent a lot earlier, not to mention, smoking can cause a variety of other health problems which can manifest with loss of smell. Nose cancer isn’t all that uncommon in smokers. Smoking damage becomes more prominent as we get older, which leads to further complications in our noses and diminishes our sense of smell. The sense of taste is an unfortunate example of collateral damage.

3. Saltier cravings are also common

Salty is another taste we’re all familiar with. Senior citizens are especially fond of this one. It’s the most popular seasoning of all. Without salt, most food will taste bland and boring. However, sometimes it’s not the salt content that is at fault.

For many senior citizens, it’s a problem with taste buds. If they can’t taste the salt in the meal, they will reach for the salt shaker to compensate. This can have unfortunate consequences down the road. A lot of older people already deal with high blood pressure, and additional salt certainly won’t help them solve it. Lowering salt intake is an important part of regulating various chronic diseases of the heart.

4. A healthier choice is always better

Having the occasional sweet craving isn’t all that harmful, but moderation can end up as the exception rather than being the norm. Eating sweets is especially risky if the person suffers from diabetes or weight problems. It’s not exactly the healthiest eating habit.

This doesn’t, however, mean that seniors can’t enjoy sweets and treats. When you visit your senior friends or grandparents, it wouldn’t hurt to bring some healthy sweet treats. Seniors adore attractive gifts like chocolate gift hampers. You can always choose the healthier option and let them enjoy treats without worrying that it will negatively impact their health. There are lots of relatively healthy sweet treats that anyone can enjoy.

5. Taste can rapidly deteriorate

Some health issues can add to the already quick decline of taste receptors. In many cases, it’s not even the taste buds that are being affected. Any disease that negatively impacts the central nervous system will very likely affect the five senses. 

Chronic conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s disease lead to the degeneration of nerves all around the brain. This will inevitably lead to problems with taste, even when taste buds are conserved. It’s an additional factor that further complicates age-related loss of taste. 

There are some benign health conditions that can also have a significant effect on taste buds. Saliva is essential for being able to taste foods. Without a healthy amount of saliva, the taste buds can’t do their job. Having a dry mouth is enough to deteriorate taste. Unfortunately, dry mouth is extremely common with age. This can be mitigated by drinking lots of water and juices that stimulate saliva flow. 

Conclusion

With all the factors that influence taste buds, it’s no wonder that seniors crave sweets. It’s one of the more dominant tastes that we can feel. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that sweet food is delicious on its own. Seniors don’t have to deny their cravings, but they should be aware that eating too much sugar can be very detrimental to their health. Sticking to moderation is advisable.

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About The Author

Mia Johnson's picture

Mia Johnson is a writer with a ten-year-long career in journalism. She has written extensively about health, fitness, and lifestyle. A native to Melbourne, she now lives in Sydney with her 3 dogs where she spends her days writing and taking care of her 900-square-foot garden.

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