Aging & Our Sense of Smell

Our sense of smell is one of our five senses. It is an important sense that can help alert us to potential threats: gas leaks, rotten food or the smell of a fire. It is also closely tied to parts of the brain that process memories and emotions. Like music, particular smells can trigger good or bad memories.

Like many things that change as we age, our sense of smell declines. In fact, nearly one third of people over the age of 80 have a problem with their sense of smell. Women in general have a better sense of smell than men, so more men are affected with what is known as presbyosmia.


Presbyosmia is age-related loss of smell that results from normal aging (especially after age 60), certain medications and surgical interventions. There are some diseases like Parkinson’s or dementia that also cause this loss of smell. Unfortunately, presbyosmia is not preventable and there is no treatment.

The change in a person’s ability to smell happens gradually over many, many years. A person may not even realize there is a problem because it has occurred over a long period of time. It is rare to completely lose one’s sense of smell, but even a partial loss can cause people to think they are smelling things that are not actually present.

While the sense of taste and the sense of smell are very closely linked in the brain, they are separate sensory systems. Smell is detected when odors stimulate the olfactory sensory cells. Taste is detected by our taste buds that are found in our tongue, roof of the mouth and in the throat. Often people think they have lost their “sense of taste”, when really the cause is presbyosmia.

Side Effects of Presbyosmia

Loss of sense of smell can also pose many dangers to a senior. Without the ability to smell, they can ingest rotten or spoiled food or not smell smoke when there is a fire. For a senior living alone, this can be worrisome.

This confusion of taste and smell can cause seniors with presbyosmia to not eat properly. They can either eat too little and risk weight loss, or overeat and gain weight. Eating may not be enjoyable since they do not smell or taste the food like they used to. They may add more salt or sugar to food in order to “boost” the flavor, which can be detrimental especially for a person with high blood pressure or diabetes.

Some studies show evidence that problems with a sense of smell could be signs of early diagnosis of some neurodegenerative disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and dementia).

Talk to Your Healthcare Provider

If you have concerns about your loved one’s ability to smell, talk to their healthcare provider or the nursing team at Heritage. Learn more about the skilled nursing services available at Heritage by visiting our website and finding a location near you today.