Loss of smell as a sense (anosmia) might not seem like such a big deal. But for those affected the results can be devastating – depression, isolation, and even the breakdown of relationships.
Surely loss of smell can’t be that serious?
People with a long-term loss of their sense of smell report that the quality of their life is severely impaired. Our sense of smell is a major component not just in our sense of taste, but also in our mood and memory.
I thought that it was our taste buds that picked up the four tastes and combined them?
They do, but smell is the first way that we become aware of our food. It’s our reaction to the smell that starts salivation in the mouth, which is the start of digestion. If you’re in any doubt as to how much smell contributes to flavour then try this experiment – with a peg on your nose blind taste a glass of red wine and a glass of cold black coffee.
So loss of smell means loss of flavour in food and drink?
It means far more than that. Think of how drink and food are inextricably bound up with social interaction. Instead of being invited to meet up for a coffee you could only meet up for a hot liquid – how appealing is that all of a sudden?
Is this why loss of small can mean people become isolated and depressed?
Yes, because a lot of the social activities that bring us together are suddenly much less appealing. Why meet up for a meal with people if not only can’t you taste it, but you can’t join in any conversations about it?
The anosmia charity Fifth Sense report that 92% of respondents’ appreciation of food and drink was reduced; 57% felt alone and isolated; and 43% had suffered depression.
Are there any other psychological effects of loss of smell?
Smell plays a very important part in memory. People without a sense of smell people encounter problems in accessing particular memories. They also have particular issues in regulating their mood, which will exacerbate the isolating effects of anosmia.
54% of people in the Fifth Sense report had also had difficulties in relationships. This isn’t just due to the effects of depression or isolation. It’s also caused by no longer responding to our partners’ pheromones – powerful chemical signals that loss of smell ‘blinds’ us to.
Is there anything I can do to help preserve my sense of smell?
Easily the best thing you can do is to stop smoking if you are a smoker. Smoking damages the olfactory nerves, and interferes with your taste buds’ ability to transmit signals. This is partly why smokers can’t smell smoke on themselves, and why they find coffee so strong when they stop smoking.
The good news is that the nerves start to repair themselves as soon as you stop, with smell and taste generally returning a fortnight after stopping smoking completely.
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