With aging, the taste buds become less sensitive, so older people may add abundant seasonings (particularly salt) or may find their food tastes bland. Older people may also have disorders or take drugs that affect their ability to taste. Such disorders include infections in the mouth, nose, or sinuses; gum disease; oral cancer; and chronic liver or kidney disease. Drugs affecting taste include some of those for high blood pressure (such as captopril), high cholesterol (such as the statins), and depression.
Many older people retain their teeth, especially people who do not develop cavities or periodontal disease, a destructive disease of the gums and supporting structures caused by the long-term accumulation of bacteria. Some older people lose some or all of their teeth and need partial or full dentures. Tooth loss is the major reason that older people cannot chew as well and thus may not consume enough nutrients.
Tooth enamel tends to wear away with aging, making the teeth vulnerable to damage and decay. Periodontal disease, however, is the major cause of tooth loss. Periodontal disease is more likely to occur in people with poor oral hygiene, in people who smoke, and in people with certain disorders, such as diabetes mellitus, poor nutrition, leukemia, or AIDS.
A modest decrease in saliva production occurs with aging. Decreased salivary flow increases the likelihood of tooth decay. Some experts also believe that it may make the lining of the esophagus more susceptible to injury.
Last full review/revision March 2006 by Linda P. Nelson, DMD, MScD