Problems with Smell

Problems with smell are common in older people. Thirty percent of older Americans between the ages of 70 and 80 have a problem with their sense of smell. Two out of three people over 80 have a problem with their sense of smell.


Problems with smell can have a big impact on the lives of older people. Our sense of smell lets us fully enjoy the scents and fragrances in the environment, like roses, coffee, and rain. Smell is also important to our appreciation of food; without smell we would not be able to fully enjoy the flavors of food and beverages. But, even more important, smell can be a warning signal that something is wrong in our environment. Smell helps us to know when food is spoiled or if there is a gas leak.The sense of smell is part of our chemical sensing system or the “chemo senses.” Normal smell occurs when odors around us, like the fragrance of flowers or the smell of baking bread, stimulate the olfactory, or small nerve cells, that are responsible for the sense of smell. The olfactory cells are located in a small patch of tissue high inside the nose. Odors release microscopic molecules into the environment and stimulate these small nerve cells. Once the cells detect the molecules, they send messages to our brain, where we identify smell.

For most people a problem with smell is a minor irritation, but for others it may be a sign of more serious diseases and conditions. When people have a problem with smell, they may experience total or partial loss of smell. They can sometimes think they smell bad odors that are not actually present. People with smell disorders usually have problems appreciating food flavors, too.Smell and taste are closely linked in the brain, but are actually distinct sensory systems. True tastes are detected by taste buds on the tongue and are limited to sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory and perhaps a few other sensations. Many people mistakenly believe they have a problem with taste, when they are really experiencing a problem with their sense of smell. Loss of smell occurs a lot more frequently than loss of taste.The sense of smell does gradually decline in older people. Many older people are not even aware that they have a problem with their sense of smell. They may not even notice that they are experiencing a loss of smell until it becomes very troubling. Although problems with smell are rarely life-threatening, loss of smell can be dangerous. Identifying smells is your brain’s way of providing you with information about your environment and keeping you safe. The sense of smell often serves as a first warning signal, alerting us to the smoke of a fire or the odor of a natural gas leak and dangerous fumes. When smell is impaired, food loses its appeal and we may eat too much and gain weight or eat too little and lose too much weight. Loss of smell may also cause us to eat too much sugar or salt to make our food taste better. This can be a problem for people with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. In severe cases, loss of smell can lead to depression. Loss of smell may be an early sign of a more serious disease, such as multiple sclerosis. Getting a diagnosis early will help an individual deal better with the underlying condition or disease.

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Research shows that people with a total or partial loss of smell are almost twice as likely as people with normal smell to have certain kinds of accidents.

The most common types of accidents in order of frequency involve

  • cooking
  • eating or drinking spoiled foods or toxic substances
  • failing to detect gas leaks or fires

Our sense of smell is most accurate under the age of 60. Women of all ages are generally more accurate than men at identifying odors. Only about one to two percent of people under the age of 65 will experience some problem with their sense of smell. After the age of 65, loss of the sense of smell increases.Many older people believe there is nothing they can do about their diminished sense of smell. Depending on the cause of your problem, your doctor may be able to treat your smell disorder or suggest new ways to cope with the loss of smell. If you think you have a problem with your sense of smell, see your doctor.