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Losses in smell, taste common with age, U. of C. researcher finds

Dr. Jayant Pinto. University of Chicago

Declines in vision and hearing get more attention, but impaired smell and taste also are common with age and can have devastating effects, doctors say.

These losses can be gradual or sudden. But Dr. Jayant Pinto, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago, says, “When it happens, people all of the sudden realize how their sense of smell affects their lives. You wake up in morning and the coffee is on, but you don’t detect that pleasure.”

Older adults with impaired smell and taste are at risk for everything from accidentally eating spoiled food to dying in undetected fires and gas leaks.

A loss of pleasure in smelling and tasting food also can lead to dangerous weight loss in some, while leading others to gorge on unhealthy foods — “hoping the next bite will taste better,” says Valerie Duffy, a University of Connecticut nutrition professor.

Losses in smell and taste can happen at any age, from causes including head trauma, nasal and sinus blockages, even a cold. But age takes an unquestioned toll, says Dr. Beverly Cowart, an otolaryngologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

“You begin to see some drop-off, on average, in the 60s,” Cowart says. “But it’s really in the 70s and 80s when you have some degree of loss in large numbers of people.”

In a study published in February, Pinto and other researchers tested 3,005 adults 57 to 85 years old and found about 22 percent showed an impaired sense of smell. They also found 74 percent failed at least some part of a taste test.

But Pinto and other researchers say that test is a less reliable indicator of real-world problems than the smelling test. Most people who say they have lost their sense of taste actually have lost their sense of smell, researchers say.

In another recent study of 3,603 adults over 40, about 19 percent reported problems with taste, and 23 percent with smell. By 80, the rates were 27 percent for taste and 32 percent for smell. The data are from the federal government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which started including questions about taste and smell just a few years ago.

One reason for the attention: Studies show people who lose their sense of smell are at greater risk for neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They also are at greater risk of dying within a few years — possibly because smell loss can be a sign of overall decline, Pinto says.

Without a proven treatment for most age-related cases of lost smell and taste, experts say it’s often a matter of coping. There’s evidence supporting smell training, in which people try to perk up their noses with daily whiffs of strong scents — like lemon, cloves and eucalyptus. Also:

• Try enhancing aroma and flavor by adding herbs and spices. Even a squeeze of lemon can help.

• Chew food slowly, taking time to breathe in aromas.

• Make sure to have not only smoke detectors but also alarms for carbon monoxide and natural and propane gas.