Human Evolution

Does our sense of smell diminish as we age?
Answered by Valerie Conners
  • Valerie Conners

    Valerie Conners

  1. Yes, as we grow older, our sense of smell declines. This diminished ability to smell, known in scientific circles as either hyposmia (lessened sense of smell) or anosmia (complete loss of sense of smell), affects nearly half the population between the ages of 65 and 80 years (source: Doty). In adults older than 80, to some degree, the condition will affect nearly 75 percent of people. It is interesting to note that a diminished sense of smell can also affect the ability to taste, and often accounts for why elderly people complain about their food, saying it seems flavorless.

    Most issues with loss of smell stem directly from the normal degeneration of the olfactory nerves and cells, as our olfactory receptors lessen as we age. In fact, according to the neuroscientist Charles Wysocki, it is possible that an elderly person has lost nearly two-thirds of the approximately 10 million sensory cells in his nose. This diminishing situation affects all humans over time. The degeneration may have been caused by viruses, airborne toxins or bacteria.

    Other theories for why diminished smell affects the elderly include the understanding that while en route to the brain, our olfactory nerves pass through a bone in our skulls that hardens with age, and may impede the transmission of the smells. Additionally, decreased ability to smell can be caused by other issues that tend to affect older people such as diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, Alzheimer's and even depression. 

    It is important that people experiencing a loss of smell seek medical attention to test for and determine the specific causes. Equally important, patients should know that physicians can help them cope with their situation. A loss of smell can present unique dangers to the elderly, such as an inability to smell a natural gas leak or smoke from a fire. While it is unlikely the sense of smell will be restored, learning how to best manage the condition is advised.

    Child's nose
    An odor molecule binds to cilia in the back of your nose to trigger the neuron and cause you to perceive a smell. (BananaStock/Thinkstock)

    More answers from Valerie Conners »

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