By Meredith Kimple
Our sense of smell is something we rarely think about until we’re greeted by a particularly nice, or particularly nasty, scent. The olfactory sensory cells in our noses enable us to appreciate the colorful aromas of the world around us; without them, we could enjoy neither the gentle fragrance of a spring flower, nor the familiar taste of our favorite meal. The ability to detect odor is a gift that many of us assume we will always have, but as with hearing loss, the aging process can alter even our most basic capabilities.
Presbyosmia, or age-related loss of smell, occurs in approximately 60% of adults over the age of 80. There are several theories as to the role the aging process plays in olfactory impairment:
- Changes to the Olfactory Bulb
The olfactory bulb is an organ located in the forebrain that processes smell. There is evidence that as a person ages, the fibers and receptors that inform the bulb are significantly decreased.
- Loss of Sensory Cells
Aging seems to impede an individual’s ability to replace depleted olfactory sensory cells.
- Health Conditions
Certain health conditions that are prevalent among the elderly population, including Alzheimer’s disease, dental problems, and even some medications can inhibit an older person’s sense of smell.
We would all agree that being unable to detect scent is far from ideal, but we might not be aware of the extent to which an impaired sense of smell can negatively impact an older person’s life. There are numerous medical problems that appear with age, and these more glaring issues can eclipse less conspicuous ailments. You can live without the ability to smell the world around you, but this does not mean we should ignore the unique set of dangers such a condition can bring.
An elderly person who has an impaired sense of smell will have trouble determining if perishable foods have gone bad; they may ingest something expired and not realize it until they become sick. Because much of what we perceive to be taste is actually smell, food loses a lot of its flavor when one’s olfactory system is compromised. To combat blandness, an older person may add too much salt or sugar to their meals, which, over a prolonged period of time, can exacerbate pre-existing health problems like high blood pressure or diabetes. Most concerning of all, an older person with an impaired sense of smell cannot detect odors that could indicate a gas leak or a fire; in a worst-case scenario, a senior could lose their life because they do not perceive the typical warning signs.
Of course, these examples exclude perhaps the most detrimental effect of an impaired sense of smell. Not being able to appreciate the little things in life, like the taste of good food or the scent of the earth after it rains, can lead to depression; smell is strongly connected to memory, and to no longer have such a powerful connection to scents can be disheartening and lonely, to say the least. Not being able to enjoy the world around them with their friends and family can lead to even greater isolation.
A recent study found that there seems to be a compelling association between older women’s social lives and their olfactory function. Researchers examined data collected in 2005 and 2006 by the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project; the 3,000 participants were women between the ages of 57 and 85. They found that individuals whose olfactory abilities were unimpaired tended to be more socially active than their peers who had compromised olfactory function. Though the results are intriguing, researchers have not yet determined the connection between olfactory ability and a woman’s social life.
Despite the study’s lack of conclusiveness, it does illustrate a possible relationship between sense of smell and social isolation. Because an impaired olfactory system can alter the way in which older people experience and interact with the world around them, it is perhaps not a stretch to suggest that the inability to smell increases their feelings of alienation.
If you are concerned that your senior loved one has lost the ability to smell, encourage them to speak to their doctor. While there is no cure for age-related loss of smell, we can help our loved ones adapt their lives. Counseling with a licensed professional can aid our older relatives and friends in coping with the emotional weight of an impaired sense of smell.
While there are more concerning ailments to watch for when it comes to our senior loved one’s health, we should never write off any changes their bodies undergo during the aging process. Just because they can survive with an impaired sense of smell, doesn’t mean that they should have to cope with it alone. Though certainly not fatal in and of itself, a compromised olfactory system can lead to dangerous situations. We must not make the mistake of thinking that an advanced age brings with it an unconditional resignation to a lesser quality of life; there may not be anything we can do to return what they’ve lost, but we can be there to offer our love and support. Our older loved ones deserve reassurance that what they are experiencing, while incredibly difficult, is normal, and that they are still relevant and appreciated.
“Stop and smell the roses,” we’re told.
But there is more than one way to enjoy a rose.
Stopping to experience the seemingly frivolous, beautifully humble things around us is always possible, no matter our limitations.