June 25, 2014 (Chicago) -- The number of taste buds on the tongue decreases as you age. This may be important because the fewer the taste buds, the higher your fasting blood sugar level, new research shows.
This could be part of the reason there are more older adults with type 2 diabetes now, suggests Chee W. Chia, MD, of the National Institute of Aging (NIA).
"We found that the number of taste buds on the tongue had a connection to our age and to how our body handles sugar," Chia told reporters at ICE/ENDO 2014, the joint meeting of the International Society of Endocrinology and the Endocrine Society.
Data from the CDC show that in 2012, 9.3% of the U.S. population had type 2. And among those over 65, a quarter -- 11.2 million people -- were living with type 2 diabetes, she said.
Past research shows that people with type 2 diabetes and their relatives have taste buds that don't sense sweetness like they should. So, Chia and her team decided to study whether people lose the number of taste buds they have as they get older, as seen in rodent experiments.
Measuring the number of taste buds is low-tech and simple, she explained. A blue dye is given to participants. The tongue turns blue, but the taste buds don't pick up the dye and therefore show up as pink dots, which are then counted.
"Our preliminary results support the [theory] that taste bud number may play a role in how our body handles sugar during the aging process," Chia said.
In answer to a question about whether anything can be done to increase the number of taste buds as you age, she said, "studying taste buds is a very new area and we don't know if once they are gone, they are gone for good."
More research is needed to explore the possible link between the loss of taste buds and the increase in diabetes as people age.
These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.