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home | At Home Care | The Senior Sweet Tooth: Why Do So Ma . . .

The Senior Sweet Tooth: Why Do So Many Seniors Crave Sweets?

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Many of our elderly, especially those over age 70, seem to have an inordinate craving for sweets. Too bad a diet of candy and ice cream isn't nutritionally sound, because our many of our elders would live on such a diet if they could.

Our over-70 population is growing, and because of concern about senior diets and nutrition, researchers have started looking more closely at the elderly sweet tooth. Here's what they've found:

Without taste buds we don't taste. The older we get, the fewer taste buds we have and the less sensitive they become. In our prime we have between 10,000 and 15,000 taste buds. By about age 70, many people have lost two out of three.

With only 3,000 to 5,000 less sensitive taste buds to work with, it's no wonder that an older person's sense of taste will decline. At the same time, the sense of smell, which contributes to taste, is also declining.

Some therapies and medications also have a tendency to affect taste. Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's Disease have been shown to alter the senses of smell and taste. As a matter of fact, a reduced ability to identify fragrances and tastes is now being used as part of the some diagnostic processes.

Sensitivity to the type of taste changes, as well. Lab tests have shown that older people lose sensitivity to salty and bitter tastes first. The ability to distinguish "sweet" appears to be retained the longest.

As humans, "sweet" is the first taste we were exposed to as infants. Infants appear to be instinctively programmed to prefer sweet flavors. Breast milk and formula are both sweet. Especially in people with dementia, perhaps this preference for sweet foods is also part of the reversion to "childhood." No one can be certain, of course.

Caregivers have remarked for years on the fact that their elderly seem to crave sweets. It makes sense when we consider that "sweet" is the food sensation they have enjoyed the longest throughout their lives and what they can still best taste and enjoy.

By adding a sweetener the elderly with a sweet tooth can often be enticed to eat foods they seem to have lost interest in. Many a caregiver has remarked that if they add a little syrup or honey to a food, it is much more readily eaten. While an older person may not care for fish, offering tuna salad with an added sweetening agent may make it more palatable. Adding sugar or another sweetener to soups, vegetables and meats is often successful. While you or I would not want honey or syrup on our hamburger, a little added sweetness may taste much better than catsup or mustard to someone who has lost interest in food.

Adding just a pinch of sweetness to foods is not usually a calorie or carbohydrate problem for most people. Even diabetics can enjoy a little sweetness, although it may not come directly from sugar. There are many sugar free products on the market which can be used to add sweetness to food without jeopardizing a diabetic diet. If in doubt, consult with a trained dietitian.

Try it. Your fussy older eater may just like it.