The smell test: another sense lost to aging

Nose loses its power as we age As the nose loses its power, delightful smells and childhood memories are threatened

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Just when we were getting our heads around the idea that many (if not most) of us will lose brain function as we age, there is news that another one of those physical gifts we take for granted is likely to leave us.

Our sense of smell.

It is a bit of a blow, if you will excuse the pun. And it joins a growing list: balance, flexibility, muscle mass, strength, vision, hearing and hair, to name just a handful of the things the young take for granted.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that our sense of smell degrades as we age, reducing both pleasure and safety. By 60, half of us will experience some reduction in nose function; by 80, three-fourths of us will.

The result is, not only does food not taste as delightful without the supporting role of our sense of smell, but we are less likely to detect spoiled food — or, for that matter, fire smoke or gas leaks.

Also in the news recently is research that suggests that the loss of hearing causes the brain to work extra hard to understand what is being said, and that causes a power drain that contributes to dementia.

Great. Just add it to the list that is too long by half.

I have always been proud of my nose. Its looks are ordinary enough, but I am pretty sure it functions at the higher end of any measurable range. I can detect trouble the minute I open the front door or the fridge, I can guess most of what you are cooking with, and my kids were never, ever going to get away with sneaking a smoke.

I hadn't really expected to lose my sense of smell, along with so many other physical gifts. I mean, I was busy worrying about driving at night and falling.

But we might be able to stem the tide of this particular loss. According to the Journal, there are the equivalent of puzzle books for your nose — exercises that sharpen the olfactory function the way crosswords exercise your brain.

We are supposed to put aside small jars of spices, pencil shavings and even the leaves of a plant and sniff them regularly to kick start the receptors in the brain. Experts recommend 30 minutes a day, but they can't be serious.

In addition, people who teach people to smell — perfumers and sommeliers — advise their students to "smell mindfully" during the day. Sort of like meditation for your nose.

If you want to know if you are already in trouble, hold your nose and close your eyes and taste chocolate and vanilla ice cream and see if you can tell the difference. Or hold a cotton ball soaked in alcohol beneath your chin and see if you can smell it.

While researching this column (Google "what do you lose as you age," and "teeth" will come up), I did learn some heartening facts.

Apparently, we lose actual brain mass at the rate of 2 grams a year beginning at age 25, so that by the time we are 80, about 7.5 percent of our brain has evaporated. Some of our cognitive functions peak around 25, which makes sense. But others, like inductive reasoning and verbal ability, don't peak until sometime after the age of 50.

Which explains why our adult children don't listen us. Their brains are telling them they know everything — when, in fact, we do.

What also dismays me about any loss of my sense of smell is how closely it is tied to memories. I can never smell carnations without remembering the "Tom Thumb" wedding pageant I was in at my church as a 5-year-old. And the aroma of certain foods triggers memories of my childhood.

The news that scent has been bred out of so many roses as the side effect of hybridization made me sad for prom queens and Valentine's Day sweethearts. And what of cut grass in summer? Isn't that one of the most universally evocative smells?

Personally, I am not going to test my sense of smell to see if it is failing. I don't I want to know this any more than I'd want to know if my DNA holds the secret of some dread disease. I'd rather go through the days left to me thinking I can smell just fine. Who's to know? It isn't like wearing glasses.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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