Poor Sense of Smell Not a Big Loss for Most People: Study

MONDAY April 18, 2011 -- Most people with a reduced sense of smell -- including those who have lost their ability to smell anything at all -- adjust and learn to cope, researchers say.

German researchers found that these people usually appear to place less importance on the sense of smell in their daily lives than those with a normal sense of smell.

The study included 470 people, half who either lacked or had a reduced sense of smell and half without the impairment. The participants underwent testing of their sense of smell, or olfactory function, and completed a questionnaire about the importance of the sense of smell.

Those with reduced or no olfactory function rated the importance of the sense lower than those who had no dysfunction, according to the researchers at the University of Dresden Medical School.

"Although they might not be aware, [they] seem to adjust to their olfactory constraints. Their sense of smell seems to be of less importance to them in daily life when it is reduced. So they report fewer olfactory-triggered emotions and memories, which seems reasonable because patients with olfactory disease experience fewer olfactory triggers," wrote Dr. Ilona Croy and colleagues wrote in a journal news release. "In accord, they also report to use their sense of smell less and to rely less on this sense in decision making."

The researchers suggested that this behavior "might be an example of regaining psychological health despite acquired and long-lasting impairments."

The study is published in the April issue of the journal Archives of Otolaryngology -- Head & Neck Surgery.

Problems with the sense of smell are common, the researchers noted. Between 13 to 18 percent of people have a reduced sense of smell and 4 to 6 percent have no sense of smell. Viral infections, head trauma, nose and sinus diseases, and neurodegenerative conditions are the main causes of reduced or lost sense of smell, and most cases are associated with aging, they added.

Because the disorder often develops gradually, many people may not seek medical help and simply learn to adjust to the impairment, according to background information in a journal news release. However, "approximately 17 percent to 30 percent of patients with olfactory disorders report a decreased quality of life, including symptoms of depression," the researchers reported.

In addition, those with poor olfactory function sometimes demonstrate a low interest in eating and a lack of appetite. The inability to detect harmful odors may also increase their risk of not recognizing hazardous events, such as a gas leak.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has more about smell disorders.

Posted: April 2011


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