Taming the Senior Sweet Tooth

Posted: 7/5/2018 1:12 PM by Interim HealthCare
Contributed by Maura Rhodes, a health journalist based in Montclair, New Jersey, who has written about caregiving throughout all ages and stages of life.
Ice cream for breakfast, cookies with lunch, heaps of sugar in coffee or tea...It’s not unusual for older people to suddenly have insatiable cravings for sweet foods. And if a parent or other aging senior you’re caring for seems to be channeling their inner toddler at the table, you’re probably wondering why they’re insisting on dessert with every meal — or dessert for every meal — and how you should handle it. After all, you’re dealing with a grown-up here.
For starters, it may help to understand why the person is craving sugar.
Aging and taste
The first thing to know about the “senior sweet tooth” is that in all likelihood it has a physiological basis. “As we get older, both our sense of taste and our sense of smell decline, and these two senses work closely together,” explains Vandana Sheth, RD, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who has a private practice in Los Angeles. There are many reasons this happens:
  • Taste bud shrinkage. Most healthy people have 10,000 or so taste buds until around age 60 or 70, when the number begins to decline and the remaining ones shrink and become less sensitive.
  • Saliva droughts. With age, the salivary glands are less productive. This can lead to dry mouth, which also can affect the sense of taste.
  • Chewing changes. Tooth loss and dentures can affect chewing, which plays a role in taste sensations. Swollen or inflamed gums also can interfere with taste.
  • Smelling shortfalls. Taste and smell are intricately linked. If you’ve ever tried to savor a meal with a head cold, you know it’s hard. With age comes a loss of nerve endings high in the nose combined with less production of mucus, which helps odors stay in the nose long enough to be detected. More than 75 percent of folks over 80 appear to have major olfactory impairment, research has found.
  • Disease. Quite a few diseases and medical conditions can affect taste and smell, many of which are most likely to affect older people. These include Alzheimer’s disease, Bell’s palsy, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, chronic renal failure, liver disease, nutritional deficiency and diabetes to name just a few.
  • Medication. Many drugs can change the taste of food. Here are a handful of examples: certain cancer treatments, lithium, the blood pressure drug captopril, procarbazine (often used for Hodgkin’s disease), the antibiotic clarithromycin (often used to treat pneumonia or bronchitis), the diuretics amiloride and ethacrynic acid and the glaucoma medicine acetazolamide.
  • Smoking. People who smoke, particularly pipes or cigars, are especially susceptible to diminished taste.
With age, any combination of these factors can make food taste less…tasty. People handle the decline differently. Some simply lose their appetite. Others reach for salt or sugar.
But isn’t eating sugary foods better than barely eating all at? Is anything really wrong with it? The answers are yes — and yes. Too much added sugar can lead to weight gain, but there’s more.
“Excess sugar also is associated with chronic inflammation in the body,” Sheth says. Chronic inflammation, in turn, is associated with heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Overindulging in sweets may even contribute to cognitive impairment. Although the brain relies on a form of sugar called glucose in order to function, too much sugar can be harmful, research shows. A high-sugar diet may also make the immune system less effective at battling “bad” bacteria.
Let them eat cake?
There’s no reason to deprive a senior of foods she loves, says Sheth. But if you truly want to help diminish the sugar cravings that have her digging into the cookie jar every chance she gets, Sheth suggests that you:
Urge her to go slow and savor. “I encourage my older clients to slow down and savor any sweets they eat and to be mindful of indulgences and portion sizes,” she says.
Be smooth. You can whip up a pretty decent replica of a milkshake by freezing chunks of bananas and then whirring them with other ingredients in a blender. Try a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter, other fruits, a splash of almond milk, flax seeds… anything goes.
Tap the natural sweetness in fruits. Handing over a banana won’t feel particularly special, but if it’s chopped up into plain Greek yogurt and sprinkled with cinnamon, which is naturally sweet, and perhaps the smallest amount of chocolate shavings or a couple of sliced cherries, it’s pretty close to being a fancy parfait. Sheth also suggests frozen grapes (for people who can safely swallow); they melt slowly in the mouth, making the sweetness last.
Bake apples and pears with cinnamon and nutmeg. When any fruit is cooked, natural sugars are released. The spices are reminiscent of a holiday pie.
Offer intensely sweet natural foods. Medjool dates are gooey, chewy and super sweet — almost like eating a caramel. Serve up a couple of two-bite-sized dates as a snack or dessert.
Choose chocolate. A little dark chocolate goes a long way toward satisfying a sweet tooth. And it contains substances called flavanols that are thought to offer a number of health benefits, including lower blood pressure.