The human palate is somewhat unique, with over 10,000 taste buds primarily on the tongue. Allowing the mouthwatering experiences of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami — "yummy" or "pleasant savory taste" in Japanese — human taste buds provide the foundation for personal meal preferences.
Whether described as a picky or adventurous eater, many people assume their meal preferences are permanent. However, the reality is that taste buds diminish, change, and experience atrophy as people age.
During middle age, taste buds can decrease in size and sensitivity. For women, the change can occur in their 40s, but in men, it is around 50.
While age is the primary reason for changes in tastes, there are other possibilities. According to medical professionals, there are five likely culprits for changing preferences.
1. Illness or Infection
Bacterial or viral infections can cause a temporary change in your tastes. Upper respiratory infections affect the nose and airways. Congestion results in an inferior sense of smell, which can affect your taste.
Also, the medications you take to treat an illness can alter your perception of taste. Some medicines can cause dry mouth, affecting the taste buds. Some of the most common medications that lead to dry mouth and interfere with taste include:
2. Nutrient Deficiencies
While it might seem unrelated, malnutrition can interfere with taste bud function. The nutrients associated with a loss of taste include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6 and B12
3. Nerve Damage
Some nerves run from the mouth to the brain and handle the perception of flavor and taste bud function. If you experience damage along the nerve pathway, you can experience changes to your sense of taste.
Nerve damage along this pathway can occur because of injury or illness. Some of the most likely causes of nerve damage are:
- Ear infections
- Ear surgery
- Facial nerve dysfunction
- Dental procedures
- Mouth surgery
- Brain trauma
4. Medical Conditions
Medical conditions affecting the brain, mouth, or nose can interfere with tastes. Mainly, conditions affecting the sense of taste are nervous system disorders, such as:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson's disease
While primarily nervous system conditions affect the sense of taste and taste bud function, non-nervous system disorders can also cause adverse effects. One known disease that alters tastes is cancer and its treatments.
Everyone knows smoking is terrible and can lead to disease and premature death. Some smokers do not realize that cigarettes and similar products can alter their taste buds. Chemicals, such as alkaloids and carcinogens, alter taste bud receptors.
The good news for smokers who want to quit is the function of taste buds seems to return with time. According to a 2017 study, people who quit smoking will experience lower taste sensitivity initially, but after about two weeks, taste bud function begins to return.
Research suggests that taste perception is typically constant other than with specific experiences like age, illness, nerve damage, health conditions, or bad habits. Taste bud regeneration occurs more frequently in adults than children, which suggests adults' sense of taste can remain reasonably consistent until middle age and older.
Your taste can change for various reasons, but it can return to normal. Contact your primary care physician if you experience rapid changes in taste perception or feel concerned about some flavor loss.