Grandma’s cinnamon cookies. Waiting to lick the spoon when mom made chocolate pudding. The smell of coffee percolating on Sunday morning. 

These are some of the food memories seniors associate with childhood. And such memories have a powerful bearing on later life. 

Just Like Mom Used to Make

While some seniors may have memory loss issues, they are likely to recall the smell and taste of foods that evoke emotional memories, especially happy ones, says cognitive research scientist John Allen. In his book, The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food, Allen draws on the work of food historians, chefs, anthropologists and neuroscientists to deliver insights on our food cravings and aversions, and what causes some people to choose “healthy” versus “unhealthy” foods. 

Food triggers deep feelings and internal states of both mind and body, says Allen, which can make a senior nostalgic — or recall a time they would prefer to forget.  

Why is what we eat so powerful? Allen posits several reasons: 

  1. Our Brain’s Olfactory “Button”. The hippocampus, the part of our brain responsible for emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system, is also strongly linked to the parts of the brain that affect sense of smell. This may be why the smell of cinnamon cookies baking evokes happy memories of visits to grandma’s house for a senior, even if the last time they visited grandma was more than half a century ago. A remembered smell pushes the “button” for the memory associated with it.
  2. Survival Is Primal. Back when humans spent most of their time foraging for food, being able to smell what was edible — as well as sniffing out an approaching predator who had determined that you were edible — ensured survival. So it may come as no surprise to you to learn the hippocampus has a direct link to the digestive system: “many of the hormones that regulate appetite, digestion and eating behavior also have receptors in the hippocampus,” notes Allen.
  3. The Biology of Reward. When we eat a highly appealing food (such as candy, for a child), the brain’s reward center is activated, essentially giving our internal systems the message, “You did good, kid.” At the same time, the neurotransmitter dopamine converts this short-term memory into a long-term one. So when you eat the same type of candy 70 years later, those memory centers light up with happy recollections: Ah, yes, that was the day we all went to the beach and dad won a huge stuffed teddy bear for me at the boardwalk arcade! A piece of candy brings it all back, just like yesterday.

How Food Memories Affect Your Relationships 

You might not think being vegan, loving tacos, or enjoying a morning smoothie have much to do with your intimate relationships, but a recent Swedish study shows that food choices tell a larger story about our lives and memories than previously imagined. 

Food attitudes shape and are shaped by our perceptions and behaviors. If we’re accustomed to connecting with our loved one around the kitchen chopping block, or while sitting down to a long, relaxing dinner — or if we typically treat food as a fuel stop on life’s highway — these specific behaviors help define the kind of intimate relationship you have. In fact, you may have subconsciously selected a partner whose food behaviors dovetail with yours, for greater harmony.

The researchers suggest that these attitudes spring from early memories — and affect our sense of security in relationships. 

It makes sense. Eve Turow, author of A Taste of Generation Yum, explores how and why Millennials are often such “foodies,” although this is a cross-generational phenomenon. She says four sprockets drive the foodie focus: 

  • Desire for community. Technology has given rise to a sense of alienation, and concomitant rates of depression and loneliness are growing, says Turow. This is as true for seniors as twenty- and thirty-somethings. Making plans to go out to dinner, or joining dinner clubs, allows people to connect in real time, not just screen time.
  • Sensory stimulation. People want something tangible they can see and feel and taste. Devices afford minimal tactile and visual connection. But “even looking at pictures of food stimulates your olfactory and gustatory cortices,” she says.
  • Identity. Using food as a form of social currency is self-branding. An organic kale salad versus a fast food burger speaks volumes about values, as the Swedish study affirms.
  • Control. There are a growing number of intangibles in our lives associated with a lack of personal autonomy, both when we’re launching our lives, and at the other end of the life spectrum. This sense of loss can create deep discomfort — and food offers one easy way to ameliorate the lack. This is why “comfort food” is a draw for everyone, regardless of age.

A Mouthful of Memories 

Speaking of survival, “taste memories tend to be the strongest of associative memories” due to a survival tactic known as conditioned taste aversion, says psychologist and neuroscientist Hadley Bergstrom.

Say you go out to dinner with friends and order scallops, which you’ve enjoyed on numerous occasions with no ill effects. This time, however, you experience a strong allergic reaction: your ears turn red, you feel feverish, with a mild headache the rest of the evening. You’re likely to associate scallops with “danger” and avoid them from then on, possibly for the rest of your life, even though the reaction may have been a one-time occurrence. 

Then there’s the nostalgia factor, which revolves around context, so “the food becomes almost symbolic of other meaning,” explains Susan Whitbourne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts.”A lot of our memories as children are not so much the apple pie, for example, but the whole experience of being a family, being nourished, and that acquires a lot of symbolism apart from the sensory quality.” 

Food and The Kensington White Plains

At The Kensington, we view a senior’s dining experience as integral to their health and well being, socially as well as nutritionally speaking. We often use fresh herbs that residents in our memory care community cultivate, and lovingly prepare meals that delight all the senses, aspiring toward only the highest standards of quality. 

Please call or come visit us soon, and share a meal worth remembering in our elegantly appointed dining room. We look forward to serving you, and to making new memories with you and your loved one.

Further Reading:

Memory loss is life changing for all involved. At The Kensington, we provide a state-of-the-art memory care program, a higher staff-to-resident ratio than industry standards, and more advanced care services. Our promise is to love and care for your family as we do our own.

For additional resources regarding your loved one’s condition, please read on about our Memory Care, Alzheimer’s Care and Dementia Care.

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