Chapter 22: To Taste, To Smell, To Touch and Not To Yield

The lasting importance of our intimate senses.

[My mother] sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ … I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses … —Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

Written by the French writer Marcel Proust in the early 20th century, this is arguably one of the more famous passages in all of literature and owes its appeal to the fact that almost everyone who reads it can immediately identify with it. The words work the way they do because they perfectly describe one of the three “intimate” senses with which human beings are furnished: taste. The other two (you could also call them the sensual senses, or the senses of love) are smell and touch. What distinguishes these intimate senses from the two that get more “press” – vision and hearing1 – is that they are largely associated not with survival but with pleasure. And what’s wrong with pleasure, you might ask? Nothing at all, I rush to answer. In fact, it’s the ability to take pleasure from life that makes life worthwhile and meaningful.

And yet, probably because pleasure is considered a luxury in our culture – indeed, a near sin to many – the intimate senses are the ones we give the shortest shrift to as we age. “We tend to think of the loss of sight or hearing as … tragic,” writes Robin Reineke, a biology researcher associated with Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, “whereas the loss of scent is laughed off or tied to aging.” Nothing could be more wrong-headed. Instead of neglecting the intimate senses, we should be celebrating them; we should be agitating for scientists to research how to save them (even as they’ve succeeded in helping to save so much of our sight and hearing); and we should be doing everything we can to keep them as acute as possible. Pleasure is not negotiable. Zoomers do not live by bread alone; we still need Proust’s madeleines.

1. Taste
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
—Virginia Woolf

The average 30-year-old has 245 taste buds on each of the tongue’s sensory bumps. The average 70-year-old has 88. Scientists are divided on which tastes disappear first but generally agree that of the four basics – sweet, salty, sour and bitter – sweet and salty are the earlier casualties. When older people tell you “things don’t taste the way they used to,” they’re not just imagining things. Complicating the situation is the fact that more than 250 medicinal drugs (which we take more of as we age) have been shown to affect taste.

One obvious response for older diners would be to say, “Fine, so our palates are a little beat up. Let’s just use more spices.” Yet what do you find when you sample the food at most retirement homes, whether basic or upscale? Dull dishes and an almost exponential increase in the popularity of Dover sole. The reason is digestion. As we lose taste buds, we also lose the capacity to digest spicy and firm food, so blander, softer foods end up as the default fare.

The answer, according to the experts, is to eat foods that are in themselves strongly flavoured without requiring additional spice: for example, strongly flavoured meat, mustards and pickles, and vegetables like radishes or capsicum, which are tangy enough to act as spices. After that, look for actual spices that are benign – i.e., that aren’t salt. These include sun-dried tomatoes, vinegars, concentrated fruit sauces, extracts of almond, vanilla, lemon and rum, citrus juices and peels.

Another key to keeping taste buds active is understanding eating styles. Steve Jobs, late of Apple, regularly went for long stretches without food because he thought it got in the way of what he was doing. I understand Jobs perfectly. I’ll often get so engrossed that I’ll forget to eat for a day at a time, sometimes longer; but then the day after, I might eat three or four, even five times. For most people, this may not be the best of routines. But if you’re the kind of Zoomer who can forget about food, spicing it up is even more important.

2. Smell
“Home in three days. Don’t wash.”
—Napoleon Bonaparte, in a letter to his wife, Josephine

Although taste and smell are often called “two sides of the same sense,” we don’t start to truly lose our sense of smell till our mid-70s – later than taste or, indeed, any of our other senses. But the loss of scent reception from that point on is steep, and anything we can do to slow the descent is crucial. This is because smell is vital in more than just the obvious ways. Smell is our forgotten sense, long neglected by science and barely understood in general life. In fact, scents can have a powerful effect on anyone, from consumers to lovers. There is a “whiff” of mystery in the deeply important but oh-so subtle signalling of compatibility, or not, on which attraction and attachment depend. Smell plays a huge part in this romantic paradigm and is also a key factor in the vigour of our sexual response, regardless of age. Women are reactive to certain “sexual” aromas – musk, for instance. Men experience increased penile blood flow in response to detecting odours of fresh-baked bread, cinnamon buns, pumpkin pie, liquorice, doughnuts and lavender.

Smell is also a powerful agent in memory, recall and how people feel about a place. It doesn’t just help us to recapture old memories but in producing new ones. A recent study at the Weizmann Institute in Israel showed smells that provoked a large degree of emotion-based activity in a test subject’s hippocampus (area of the brain that consolidates short- and long-term memory) were far more likely to create persistent memories than sounds that produced equally high emotional response. “These findings,” wrote the researchers, “confirmed the hypothesis of a privileged brain representation for first olfactory associations.” Not surprisingly, there are indications that the loss of smell may also be tied to Alzheimer’s disease.

Extreme smell loss – anosmia – can even cause people to lose the will to eat and risk malnutrition. So how do we keep our sniffers sharp? There are simple exercises that can help. These include taking brisk walks (exercise heightens the smell sense), eating oysters (which contain zinc, necessary to maintain smell and taste), stubbing out cigarettes (obviously), putting on seat belts (even at low speeds, collisions can jar the brain and tear the nerves that connect it to your nose) and “sniff therapy” (inhaling a strong-smelling item several times a day, which can, apparently, train the nose and brain to detect smells more acutely).

As a kind of mixed blessing, not only can we smell other people, they can smell us. Which brings me to the ticklish subject of “old person’s” smell. When I started writing this chapter, I wondered if I dared broach the topic. The good news is that there is probably no such specific old person’s smell. In response to a 2001 Japanese study that suggested that the skin of people over 40 produces a higher concentration of stale and off-smelling chemicals, George Preti, a scent expert at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, did an experiment involving stair-climbing with young and old that totally negated the Japanese findings. The bad news is that there are older people who smell less than fresh, probably because their own deteriorating sense of smell has allowed them to forgo bathing and cleaning their clothes. They smell, that is, because they can’t.

3. Touch
“The pressure of the hands causes
the springs of life to flow.”
—Tokujiro Namikoshi, the founder
of shiatsu therapy

Touch is the one truly reflexive faculty. It’s virtually impossible to touch someone else without having them also feel you in return and vice versa; and
it’s in this passive mode of being touched, that this sense is so critical to us as we age.

Surveys confirm that older people receive the least touching of any age group, despite the fact that they are probably in need of physical contact more than any other. Studies also show they’re far more willing “to touch and to accept touching” than younger people, in particular, adolescents. You have only to go to a succession of high-school reunions, over the years, to see that the older the attendees, and the fewer of them left, the more they hug each other. (Actually, touch-wise, aging North Americans become more Latin: a study of coffee houses in various countries revealed 180 personal touches during an average hour in a Puerto Rican coffee shop; 110 in a French café; and, amazingly, only two in an American shop and none in an English.) Meanwhile, regular human touch has been shown to lessen pain, improve lung function, lower blood sugar and stimulate the immune system.

“The tactile system,” says James Fosshage, a psychoanalyst in New York, “is the earliest sensory system to become functional (in the embryo) and may be the last to fade.” That’s why touch has also been called the “mother of all senses,” and as we get old, it also becomes the mother of all pleasures.

In fact, that other touch-resonant demographic – babies – may have the most to teach us about all the intimate senses and the joys therein. Nietzsche once said that the trick for adults was to approach their work as seriously as children approached their play. The trick for Zoomers is to approach the pleasure we can get from our senses as wholeheartedly as children do. Like children, we have a talent for it. I, for one, can think of no better way to pass the time. Pleasure: it’s what good health is for.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.