People regularly experience the fading of senses as they age. With advancing age, these once-sharp organs begin to decline, and smells, sights, and sounds are more difficult to pick out. Though many old timers have jokingly said, “I am getting old,” their remaining days were usually a mystery.
However, a study involving 3,000 older American adults discovered that a fading sense of smell as we age may be an indicator of our remaining lifespan. Researchers say that those having a poor sense of smell are more likely to die within five years.
The study, reported in the journal PLOS One, found that those who could not detect odors such as peppermint, oranges, roses, or leather were around three times as likely to die in coming years as compared to those who still retained a sharp sense of smell. During the five years after they were surveyed, 39 percent of people with poor sense of smell were dead, versus 19 percent of those with moderate smell loss and 10 percent of those who retained an intact sense of smell.
The scientists feel perhaps the failure to sense odors, known medically as “anosmia,” may prove to be a better predictor of approaching death than did major diseases, including heart or lung disease or cancers.
Speaking about the study, lead researcher Dr. Jayant Pinto, a University of Chicago specialist in nasal disorders said, “We were pretty surprised it was such a strong predictor.”
However, the scientists are still unclear how smell, or the lack of it, is linked to lifespan. They gesticulate that it’s possible a reduced sense of smell could be evidence of the body’s declining ability to regenerate or repair cells.
Likening the inability to smell perfectly to an omen, Dr. Pinto said, “We think loss of the sense of smell is like the canary in the coal mine. It doesn’t directly cause death, but it is a harbinger, an early warning system that shows damage may have been done.”
Should people who feel they are losing their sense of smell ring the alarm bell? The researchers have cautioned that a loss of the ability to smell is not necessarily a reason to panic. Many conditions such as allergies, a severe cold, or sinus problems can also negatively impact the nose’s ability to detect odors.
When asked which sensory organ would you prefer living without, many have picked the sense of smell.
“Of all human senses, smell is the most undervalued and under-appreciated — until it’s gone,” lamented Dr. Pinto.
Perhaps it is time we started listening to our nose more.
[Image Credit | Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago]