Cupping my mug beneath my nose I take in the aroma of my first cup of coffee of the day. I can’t imagine what life would be like without this simple pleasure. We, as humans, are blessed with over 10,000 different scents. But like all our other senses there is a gradual decline that comes with age. For the sense of smell decline slowing begins as early as the late ’30s. During a person’s 50’s the decline becomes more rapid making our sense of smell half as sharp as it was in our youth. One major study showed that 60% of people in their 60’s and 70’s showed impairment and 25% could not identify odors. Eighty percent of the subjects over age 80 showed impairment; 50% had a complete loss of the sense of smell.
Here’s how our sense of smell works.
Photo from: https://blog.cognifit.com/the-sense-of-smell/
Every aroma is processed by a patch of nerve endings, about the size of a postage stamp, that is high in your nose. These nerve endings wear out and may even die off with age. “Odor signals travel directly to some of the oldest parts of your brain, including to areas connected to memory and emotions,” says Jayant M. Pinto, an otolaryngologist and associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago.
Our odor memories are associated with the good and bad experiences of our life. That’s because our sense of smell is closely tied to the part of our brain most involved with memory and emotion. I never knew what to expect when I came home from school each day. My mother suffered from mental illness. But there were signs I’d look for that indicated it was safe to go inside. The aroma of fresh-baked bread right out of the over was one of the signs. So even to this day, the smell of baked bread conjures-up some of the fonder memories of my Mom and the feeling of comfort that comes with it.
As important as the smell is it often gets taken for granted, but as we get older those smells can change and get all mixed up. My Dad was a smoker and he also wore Old Spice aftershave. I heard of people taking two distinctive smells like this that are planted in their memory and instead of smelling the Old Spice aftershave they would mistake it for the smell of cigarette smoke. Research has found that few people in their 70’s 80’s and 90’s can detect orders, and even fewer can correctly identify them. This can be a dangerous thing because we count on our sense of smell to let us know if there’s a gas leak in our house. Just the other day I turned on one of my gas burners and turn away to clean something at the sink. I realized the gas never ignited because I’m still able to detect that pungent smell. How easy it would be to get distracted and walk off into another room never even remembering that we turned the burning on. My friend was recently telling me about how she walked into her 89-year-old mother’s house and something was burning in the oven. While her mother was watching the TV in the other room she never even noticed that what she was baking was now burnt. And imagine what it would be like to open a container of spoiled food and not know it because that we can’t smell the rancid odor. Smelling is one of the senses that helps us to detect danger so it can be pretty scary not to be able to protect ourselves. On a more personal level, It even helps us with our own personal hygiene.
So, what can we do to help ourselves?
Even though I like cooking on a gas stove better, maybe it’s time to think about investing in an electric one or a gas detector that sounds an alarm.
It’s important for us to maintain our dignity in respect to our hygiene. So, I hope if I ever get to the point where I have personal body order I’m not aware that someone will kindly draw my attention to it.
Making sure we have smoke alarms and that they are working is a good idea.
Avoid strong fumes from cleaning products and other chemicals.
Labeling, proper handling and storing of our food correctly.
This one seems totally unrelated, but according to a 2016 National Institutes of Health study, people who exercise and do not drink excessively have been found to be less likely to suffer the loss of smell.
“Spend a few minutes a day gently sniffing familiar aromas, such as lemon, clove, eucalyptus, and rose. Smell training seems to help 30 to 40 percent of people improve their ability to detect an odor,” says Janet M. Pinto, an otolaryngologist and associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago.
Be sure to talk with your health care professional if you find that age-related changes in smell are affecting your quality of life or safety.
References and more reading material on the loss of our senses with age:
https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/downloads/2n49t6593 Sensory Changes in Later Life by Vicki L. Schmall, Extension gerontology specialist
http://pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-2418/T-2140web.pdf Understanding the Effects of Aging on the Sensory System by Youmasu J. Siewe, Ph.D.,MPH
https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs1378.pdf Making Sense of Sensory Losses as We Age by Dena Kemmel, M.S and Sean Brotherson, Ph.D both of NDSU Extension Services