Our Mysterious Sense Of Smell
Reader's Digest UK|May 2021
The world’s leading researchers are unlocking facts about the least understood of our senses
Lisa Fields

Your sense of smell is largely responsible for your ability to taste food. “Flavour is really an integrated experience that combines what happens on your tongue—that’s sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy—with smell,” says Asifa Majid, psychology professor at the University of York. “When you put something in your mouth, the molecules go into your nasal cavity. Your tongue might be able to tell that there’s fat in that chocolate, and that’s something the brain finds very rewarding, but the formal chocolate experience comes from all the molecules going into your nose.”

Women out-perform men when both groups are asked to identify a certain number of scents. That holds true across all age groups. “This could be due both to women being better able to perceive the smell and women being better at verbalising the odour—that is, providing the odour with a verbal label,” says Erika Jonsson Laukka, senior researcher at the Karolinska Institute’s Ageing Research Centre in Stockholm. Her research shows that when people were asked to memorise eight scents (including garlic, fish, turpentine, and lemon) and were then given a scent test, which included some of the original scents and some new scents, the women were better able to identify whether or not a scent was one of the ones that had been memorised. Women were also better at identifying the scents by name.

After age 50 or so, our sense of smell starts to decline. “This loss accelerates as people get older,” says Dr Thomas Hummel, director of the Smell and Taste Centre at the Technische Universität, Dresden. “Among people over 50, a quarter have a loss. In people over 80, about a third will have no olfactory function at all. But half of those over 80 still have a good sense of smell.”

People often think that those who are blind, deaf, or have lost their ability to smell will have another sense heightened, but according to research, this is merely an old wives’ tale. For example, Dr Hummel has studied the sense of smell in blind people and has not found the sense to be heightened.

“That’s a little bit of a myth,” Dr Hummel says. “We’ve been looking at this in very large groups—up to 40 people—with congenital blindness, and people with acquired blindness, and they are not better in their sense of smell. There may be individuals who are really good. But when you look at larger groups, you don’t see it. It’s not there.”

“Every time we have a cold, a toll is taken,” says Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Centre in Philadelphia. Cumulative damage from a lifetime of illnesses suffered by the average person contributes to smell loss in many older adults. In the case of a cold, “The virus damages little elements of the epithelium—the lining of the olfactory region where the receptors are located, at the top of the nose— pockmarking it. By the time we get into our sixties, seventies and eighties, it looks like a cheesecloth.”

Smell loss can be an early symptom of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. It could indicate illness or chronic disease, so see your doctor if you notice your sense of smell fades, says York’s Professor Majid. “But for most of us, it’s not a concern. It’s just a natural part of getting older.

FRESH INSIGHTS, THANKS TO COVID-19

Many of us have a new appreciation of our sense of smell

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