The yummy scent of bread baking. The smell of newly mown grass. The odor of spoiled food. Our sense of smell plays a large role in our lives—even more than you might think. As many have discovered during the coronavirus pandemic, losing your sense of smell can dramatically affect your quality of life.
But did you know that a diminished sense of smell is often a natural part of aging? Unlike when smell is lost due to a virus or other physical issue, the loss of smell due to aging happens gradually and might not even be noticed.
Studies show that more than 50% of those 65 and older have some loss of smell, and that number jumps to more than 60% in people older than 80.
Why does age-related loss of smell happen?
As we age, the olfactory neurons in our noses break down. In younger people, those neurons are replaced by new ones manufactured by stem cells, but in older people, those stem cells often don’t work as well, resulting in fewer olfactory neurons available to keep us sniffing out smells.
Other factors that can also affect our sense of smell as we age include aging of the centers of the brain that process smell, as well as damage to the olfactory epithelium, a thin tissue on the roof of the nasal cavity that pulls in smells.
Is losing your sense of smell dangerous?
While losing your sense of smell temporarily is an inconvenience, diminished sense of smell as we age can be more than just inconvenient; it can, at times, be dangerous.
We rely on our noses to alert us to all sorts of dangers, whether it’s spoiled food in the refrigerator or smoke from a fire. Our nose is sometimes the first line of defense in sniffing out things that can cause us harm.
If you can’t smell that spoiled food, you might eat it and end up with food poisoning. If you can’t smell smoke, you don’t know there’s a potentially harmful fire. If you can’t smell gas from someone leaving the stove on, you don’t know to evacuate.
In fact, one study found that adults between the ages of 57 and 85 who were suffering from loss of smell were three times more likely to die within a five-year period than those whose sense of smell was normal. The study noted that these results may show that loss of smell can be a marker of other diseases.
What can cause loss of smell?
Loss of smell is often one of the first signs of some diseases and should be taken seriously. Because of their effects on the brain, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can often first show up with a loss of smell.
Loss of smell can also be caused by a polyp, a harmless growth in the nose, or by certain medications and cancer treatments.
While losing your sense of smell may be an inevitable consequence of aging, it’s important to talk with your doctor if your nose starts to fail you, as it could be a sign of something more serious.
What are the consequences of losing your sense of smell?
Whether a loss of smell is a hallmark of a larger problem or simply a part of the natural process of aging, it’s important to be aware of how it can affect a senior’s daily life.
Smell and taste are closely linked. When one diminishes, so does the other. That can lead someone with a reduced sense of smell to want to eat highly salted or sugary foods so they can taste it. However, adding salt and sugar to a senior’s diet can result in issues with hypertension or diabetes—or complications for those already diagnosed with those diseases.
On the other hand, a loss of smell (and subsequently taste) can make eating less enjoyable, leading seniors to not eat enough food, potentially leaving them underweight and frail. And this can lead to a greater risk for falls and injuries.
Loss of smell has also been linked to a lower quality of life and can even contribute to depression.
How can I help my loved one if they lose their sense of smell?
If your loved one begins experiencing a loss of smell, it’s important to get checked by a doctor to rule out physical causes and to make sure the loss of smell isn’t related to a neurodegenerative disease.
If you discover the loss of smell is simply a part of the aging process, there are steps you can take to keep your loved one safe and happy.
Make sure smoke detectors always have working batteries, so a loss of smell won’t put your loved one in danger from fire. Natural gas detectors are an inexpensive way to provide peace of mind if your loved one has appliances that run on natural gas that they may no longer be able to smell.
If your loved one isn’t excited about food because of their loss of smell, focus on making their meals colorful and filled with strong spices (just be careful with salt and sugar). The stronger the flavor of the food, the more likely it will taste good to your loved one. A colorful plate appeals to the sense of sight, making the food seem more appealing.
Many ENTs encourage the use of smell training to improve a lost sense of smell. The American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation recommends sniffing four strong scents – usually rose, lemon, cloves and eucalyptus – for 10 to 20 seconds once or twice a day. The theory is that practicing the smells while remembering what those things smell like will encourage your olfactory nerves to work.
While loss of smell can be discouraging, don’t give up. Focus on activities that favor the other senses, and make family gatherings and visits rely less on food and more on other activities that you do together. As long as you’ve taken steps to ensure your loved one’s sense of smell doesn’t put them in danger, focus your efforts on helping them appreciate the things they can do—not the things they can’t.