While all of us are no doubt familiar with the loss of smell being one of the temporary symptoms of the COVID-19 virus, the inability to smell can also be caused by many other things. Allergies, congestion, and other causes can interfere with the sense of smell in people. Historically, clinicians haven’t taken the loss of the sense of smell very seriously, but they should. Suffering from a loss of the ability to smell can cause wide ranging impairments to a person’s quality of life. Negative emotional impact, feelings of isolation and loneliness, negative effects to relationships and daily functioning, and impacts on physical health.
The loss of smell, called anosmia, can be a temporary condition. But it can also be for a long, or even permanent, duration. It can be present at birth, or it can be caused by infections, injuries, tumors, problems with the sinuses, or neurological conditions. A related disorder, called parosmia, is when the things smell is altered. The smell of certain things, sometimes everything, is different, and often unpleasant. For example, someone with parosmia might smell a cinnamon stick, and instead smell something like rotten food, or worse.
Smell disorders can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Age itself is also a risk factor when it comes to smell. The olfactory neurons, the brain cells we need for smelling, change with age. For older adults with loss of smell, their health and quality of life is affected in several important ways.
Smell loss can affect the safety of seniors. Without smell, seniors could be unable to detect spoiled food, gas leaks in their home, or toxic vapors. This is another reason that keeping smoke alarms in the house, in good working order, is important. And for seniors with natural gas stoves, taking extra precaution to make sure they’re completely turned off is important.
Seniors with smell loss are at greater risk of malnutrition compared to those without. Part of the enjoyment people derive from food is as much the smell of it as the taste. When the prospect of eating doesn’t sound enjoyable, seniors are likely to skip meals or eat something nutritionally empty. Seniors can counter this by adjusting the amount of seasoning they use while cooking, or finding foods that are instead texturally and visually appealing.
Research done on the link between sensory loss and brain health mostly focuses on the senses of vision and hearing. But recent research has identified anosmia as an early symptom of dementia, as the loss of smell contributes to the cognitive load and stress that is detrimental to the brain.
Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. The inability to link smells to happy memories is an issue. Imagine if you had to go through the holiday season without smelling things like apples, fireplaces, and pine trees. Smells link us to people, places, and emotional experiences. People who have lost their sense of smell can miss out on all the memories that certain smells would otherwise invoke.