Out of all our senses, it is generally the sense of smell that we ignore the most even though we rely on it more than we realize. In fact, the taste of food is very much linked to how it smells!
As with any other mechanism in our body, our olfactory system also degrades over time, and we may start imagining smells that are not there as we age. These are called phantom odors and researchers at the National Institute on Deafness, and Other Communication Disorders found that one in every 15 people over the age of 40 have experienced them.
While it may not seem like a big deal, you should still be aware of the phenomenon. The reason is that smelling things that are not there may be an indicator of any of a number of underlying health conditions ranging from an untreated sinus infection to cancer.
Dr. Kathleen Bainbridge of the epidemiology and biostatistics program at the NIDCD said in a statement that the condition of phantom odors could be related to overactive odor-sensing cells in the nasal cavity or a malfunction in the brain that changes our understanding of odor signals.
This could lead to long-term health risks, and it can seriously reduce quality of life. Problems with our sense of smell may have a big impact on appetite and food preferences as well as reduce our ability to detect danger signals like gas leaks or spoiled food. In fact, in some cases, it may act as an early indicator of deteriorating brain function.
That is actually a cause for concern in cases of the elderly who are living alone as they might miss early signals of impending disasters. Proper and functioning smoke detectors can help as can having help at home or relocating to a nursing home or assisted living facility.
Studies have found that women are more at risk of smelling phantom odors because of their heightened sense of smell. People who are frequently exposed to environmental pollutants and toxins are also more at risk of changes in olfactory senses.
Increased awareness about a deteriorating sense of smell can help patients receive accurate diagnosis and treatment.
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