Recovering a Sense of Smell

Cooking and sharing a meal with friends and family is one of the most enduring expressions of love shared around the world.  Smell and taste are also deeply connected with memory. For many, it’s the smell of the kitchen during holidays or first thing in the morning when the coffee is brewing that elicits a strong emotional response.  But for many older adults, diminished senses of smell and taste can hinder their desire to cook or to eat.   

According to the National Institutes of Health, olfactory function (our sense of smell) declines as we get older and it may become more difficult to distinguish between certain odors.  In adults over the age of 70, the sense of smell declines considerably.  Even without chronic health problems, the brain’s ability to discern smells may deteriorate and olfactory receptors, mucosa and fibers in the olfactory bulb decrease significantly with age.  Because our sense of smell is so closely related to our ability to enjoy food, losing the sense of smell directly affects quality of life. 

Liver disease, smoking, some neurodegenerative conditions and radiation for head or neck cancers also appear to influence olfactory function.  Nasal polyps, which are common among people with allergies or asthma, can block smells from traveling through the nasal passages.  According to a recent Star newspaper report, chef Joshana Maharaj suffered from polyps which had to be removed surgically, affecting her ability to smell. This is a problem for someone who relies on smell and taste to prepare food.  But she is working to recover her sense of smell and reconnect memories of scents from her childhood with the food she prepares.  

Fortunately, there is new evidence that through “smell therapy”  some patients can recover their sense of smell with exercises designed to get the nerves working again and connecting with the brain.  According to research from the University of Dresden’s Smell and Taste Clinic, by using essential oils in smell training sessions, 30 percent of patients had improved their ability to smell after 12 weeks.  

Learn more about smell loss and smell training by following this link to Abscent and the Sense of Smell Project.