Social Life May Be Linked to Sense of Smell as We Age

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Older women who have fewer social connections could blame their nose, according to researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

In a recent study, data was found to support the theory that social life is related to a person’s sense of smell. Scientists took data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project and analyzed the information of 3,005 adults.

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The ages of the adults ranged from 57 to 85 years old, while the data included 1,455 men and 1,550 women. Johan Lundström, a cognitive neuroscientist and senior author of the study, said the study’s findings point to a sense of smell and social life being associated with one another.

“Our findings confirm that the sense of smell is a key aspect of overall health in the aging population,” Lundström said in a press release. “More than 20 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 50 has a reduced sense of smell. We need to better understand how olfaction is linked to social behavior in order to improve quality of life as we age.

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The researchers collected information and conducted face-to-face interviews with the participants. They also tested for olfactory function by utilizing a validated, brief odor identification test by placing high concentrations of five different odors in a multiple choice format.

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Included with the odors were four possible descriptions of the odors presented as a word-picture combination. Participants weren’t allowed to answer ‘don’t know,’ and each odor was held in front of the nose for two to three seconds, with an interval of 20 to 30 seconds in between each odor.

The researchers evaluated social lives through in-person interviews, as well as asking questions about the participants’ relationships with friends and family. While women performed better than men during the olfactory testing, a significant association was found for women between the odor identification and their overall social lives.

“This intriguing sex difference could suggest that smell training, which has been shown to improve a reduced sense of smell in both men and women, may have an additional beneficial function in older women by helping to restore both the sense of smell and, by extension, social well-being,” said Lundström.

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Controls for age, education level, current smoking, physical and mental health status were then put in place by the researchers. Even after using the control method, the association was still found for women, but not for men, the authors said.

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Scientific work focusing on differences between the sexes suggest that women’s self-perception is more influenced by relational concerns, making them more susceptible to the content and quality of their relationships, both emotionally and physiologically, the authors wrote.

Women also exhibit a higher level of stress-induced cortisol response when challenged with social rejection, while men demonstrate heightened responses when faced with threats to achievement-related goals. Further research is needed to determine what kind of variables affect the social life-olfactory function association, the authors said.

“You hear anecdotal accounts from women who have lost their sense of smell about having fewer friends than they had previously,” said Lundström. “We hope our findings can help reassure them that they are not alone in feeling that way.”

Tori Linville

Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.