Onions, Chocolate and Your Sense of Smell

It looks like medical researchers have sniffed out a new way to save lives. A recent study published in the medical journal, JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, linked a reduced sense of smell in seniors to an increased risk for death and highlighted the importance of early detection and treatment.

The research was conducted by Dr. Janet Choi from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Choi and her colleagues collected data from 3,503 U.S. adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Participants were given the Pocket Smell Test to assess if they could identify odors like onion, soap, leather, smoke, grape, strawberry, chocolate, and natural gas. Subjects needed to accurately recognize six scents classified as having “normal” nasal powers. One point was deducted for each additional odor that couldn’t they couldn’t identify. Study volunteers were also asked to self-report their ability to detect odors.

The researchers discovered that for individuals 65 and older, the risk of death increased by 18% for each point deducted. Oddly, people who self-reported a fading sense of smell and individuals between the ages of 40-64 who didn’t do well on the objective test didn’t seem to be negatively impacted.

The inability to smell is a serious health problem, with more than 200,000 people in the U.S. seeking out a doctor’s advice annually. Injury, disease, and aging can all impede our nose and brain’s ability to recognize important scents and result in a decreased quality of life. A reduced sense of smell can cause a lack of appetite that leads to malnutrition, while the inability to smell certain odors can also be dangerous if someone can’t detect the scent of something harmful like a gas leak.

Choi and her team emphasized that an inability to recognize odors can contribute to feelings of depression since affected individuals may no longer have the ability to smell scents that once brought them happiness. The joy experienced from inhaling aromas from delicious meals, fragrant flowers, or nostalgic mementos suddenly vanishes.

The researchers did offer a glimmer of hope to individuals with olfactory dysfunction. According to Choi, repeatedly smelling certain scents several times a day, also known as “olfactory training,” may help some people regenerate new olfactory nerve growth that can improve their sense of smell.

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