Compared to vision or hearing, the loss of smell and/or taste is underrated. But according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, “Problems with these senses have a big impact on our lives. Smell and taste contribute to our enjoyment of life by stimulating a desire to eat – which not only nourishes our bodies but also enhances our social activities. When smell and taste become impaired, we eat poorly, socialize less, and feel worse.” The ability to recognize different smells and tastes also protects us by warning us of dangers, such as fire, poisonous fumes, and spoiled food. On the plus side, the experience of pleasant scents can stimulate good memories.
The complete loss of smell is called anosmia, and it is the primary cause of the loss of taste. Our taste buds can only detect sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory. It is the ability to smell that allows us to taste flavor in our food. Still, problems with smell and taste get little attention, perhaps because people with such disorders look “normal” and appear to function normally. As a result, doctors often advise patients to just live with it.
There are several known causes of smell and taste disorders including tissue damage resulting from inflammation of the sinuses and nasal passages; head injury that results in the brain becoming bruised and the nerves injured; medications, including some antibiotics, antidepressants, and heart medications; tooth decay, and cigarette smoking. People who have Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis may also experience a loss in their ability to smell and taste.
Aging is another factor in the loss of smell and taste. According to the Senior Health Newsletter of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “The sense of smell often diminishes with age. In one clinical study, 40 percent of men and 20 percent of women between ages 70 and 79 had measurable smell impairments.” The National Institute on Aging (NIA) also points out that it is normal for the sense of smell to decline in older people. “Many older people are not even aware that they have a problem with their sense of smell because the changes occur gradually over several years. They may not notice that they are experiencing a loss until there is an incident in which they don’t detect food that has spoiled or the presence of dangerous smoke.”
The loss of smell can have a negative impact on the eating habits of the elderly. According to the NIA, “some elderly may eat too little and lose weight while others may eat too much and gain weight. Loss of smell may also cause the elderly to eat too much sugar or salt to make food taste better. This can be a problem for people with medical conditions such as diabetes, or high blood pressure. In severe cases, loss of smell can lead to depression.”
The loss of smell is a real safety hazard. The NIA article reads, “People with a total or partial loss of smell are almost twice as likely as others to have certain kinds of accidents. The most common types involve cooking, eating or drinking spoiled foods or toxic substances, and failing to detect gas leaks or fires.” It’s important that seniors, their families, and caregivers take safety precautions such as using a gas detector and smoke alarms.