Millions of people are experiencing a degree of odor deficiency or impairment of their sense of smell in the United States and around the world. As a new study shows, this can have a severe impact on the health of individuals.
About 1 in 4 individuals over the age of 40 in the U.S. report a difference in their sense of smell, according to statistics from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
This transition could be partial or total loss of odor, odor distortion, or even fantasy smells, and these issues can arise from a variety of factors.
“There are many factors— from infections and injuries to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and as a side effect of some drugs,” says Prof. Carl Philpott, of the Norwich Medical School of the University of East Anglia, UK.
Prof. Philpott and colleagues recently set out to learn how life can change the lack of odour. As shown by the team’s report, such a shift can have a profound impact on the well-being of people. EOLBREAK EOLBREAK In a research paper that appears in the journal Clinical Otolaryngology, the authors report their findings.
‘ We wanted to learn more’
The best-known effect of loss of smell is the impact on how well the human can taste, because smell and taste are closely linked.
“Many patients suffer from a lack of taste perception that can impair appetite, and can get even worse if there are also disturbances of their sense of smell,” says Prof. Philpott.
But this is not the only way that an inability to smell, one of the earliest senses of nature, affects the life of a person.
“Former work has shown that people who have lost their sense of smell frequently experience high levels of depression, anxiety, isolation and difficulties in relationships,” notes Prof. Philipott.
“We decided to find out more about how a loss of smell affects people.”
To do this, the team interviewed 71 participants aged 31–80 who had been affected by odor disorders and had received support from The Smell & Taste Clinic at James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston-On-Sea.
The research team have partnered with Fifth Sense, a charity based in the UK for people suffering from odor and taste disorders.
In their own words the participants described their experiences. The researchers found after reading and reviewing these accounts that people with odor problems can experience a range of issues that affect daily life like relationships.
The results included a negative impact on mental and emotional health, social isolation and increased risks to other facets of physical health, as well as financial difficulties associated with accessing the support needed.
“One very big problem[ reported by the participants],” says Prof. Philipott, “was about awareness of danger— not being able to smell food that was gone or not able to smell gas or smoke.”
“This resulted in serious near-misses for some,” he emphasizes, calling smell “a lifesaving sense.” The researcher also spoke of the “life-enhancing” quality of this sense, when smell becomes impaired, a person’s overall enjoyment of life may diminish.
“A large number of the participants no longer enjoyed eating and some had lost their appetite and weight,” Prof. Philipott observes.
The team also found that the loss of the odor could affect the diet content. Several participants “were eating more low-nutritional food that was high in fat, salt, and sugar — and had gained weight as a result,” the researcher adds.
‘A negative impact on relationships’
Most participants in the study indicated that their lack of smell meant they were no longer able to participate in social activities, such as cooking for friends and family, which made them feel lonely.
“Participants had lost interest in food preparation and some said they were too embarrassed to serve dishes to family and friends, which had an impact on their social lives,” Prof. Philipott explains.
And, since people cherished memories of different smells— such as a perfume associated with a loved one, or the smell of freshly cut grass in a childhood home garden — some participants felt they had lost significant connections with people and places.
“A problem was also the inability to link smells to happy memories. Bonfire night, sounds of Christmas, perfumes and people— all gone. Smells are connecting us with people, places and emotional experiences. And people who have lost their sense of smell are missing all those memories which can evoke smell,” he notes.
Smell loss also led to feelings of anxiety and inadequacy because, for example, many participants were worried that they could not feel their own body odor.
“We found that personal hygiene was a major cause of anxiety and embarrassment, as the participants could not smell themselves,” says Prof. Philipott.
Moreover, the researcher notes, “Young children’s parents couldn’t tell when their nappies needed to change, and that led to feelings of failure.”
“One mother,” he adds, “found it difficult to bond with her new baby because she couldn’t smell him.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for many people, these obstacles lead to difficulty in maintaining the quality of relations.
“Several participants identified a negative impact on relationships— from not enjoying eating together to having an impact on sexual intercourse.”Prof. Carl Philpott
A lack of connection with doctors
The researchers note that the problems associated with the lack of odor significantly affected the mental and emotional health of the participants, leading to anger, depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and a decrease in trust.
Participants who participated in the study have expressed disappointment at the fact that many healthcare professionals do not completely understand the impact of odor disorders.
“A lot of negative and unhelpful experiences with health care professionals were identified by the participants,” says Prof. Philpott.
“We were very happy with those who managed to get help and support — even if nothing could be done about their situation, they were very thankful for guidance and understanding,” he says.
Duncan Boak— Fifth Sense’s founder and president— who did not contribute to this report, also emphasizes that odor loss “can have a huge impact on people’s quality of life in many respects, as this work shows.”
But, he hopes that, due to this and other studies, people affected by odor disorders can begin to get better support.
“In our ongoing work, the results of this study will be of great help to improve the lives of those affected by anosmia,” he says.