Strong Sense of Smell Tied to More Active Social Life in Older Women

A strong sense of smell is associated with a more active social life in older women, according to a new study led by researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pa. The findings also showed that older women who did poorly on a smell identification task were more likely to have fewer social connections.

“Our findings confirm that the sense of smell is a key aspect of overall health in the aging population,” said Johan Lundström, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist and senior Monell author on the study. “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.”

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from a nationally-representative sample of 3,005 American adults between the ages of 57 and 85 registered with the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), a US population-based study of health and social factors. The data included odor identification test scores as well as information about subjects’ social lives.

The researchers compared each participant’s odor identification score — an established measure of olfactory function — with an aggregated “overall social life” score, which included measures such as participants’ number of friends and close relatives, and how often they socialized. Researchers factored in potential confounding variables, including education level, tobacco use, and physical and mental health status.

The findings showed a clear link between an older woman’s olfactory ability and her overall social life score: women with strong olfactory abilities tended to have more active social lives while those with diminished olfactory function were more likely to receive a poor social life score.

“We know that social interactions are closely linked to health status, so older women who have a poor sense of smell may want to focus on maintaining a vital social life to help improve their overall mental and physical health,” said study lead author Sanne Boesveldt, Ph.D., a sensory neuroscientist.

No link was found between olfactory function and social life in older men.

“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.

While the study establishes a connection between the sense of smell and social life, it is not yet clear exactly how the two are connected or if the same relationship also exists in younger women. In the future, longitudinal studies following the same participants over time could help clarify whether olfactory loss directly influences social life and potentially allow the researchers to identify the mechanisms involved.

Still, being aware that olfactory status is related to social activity could already be valuable to those affected by olfactory disorders.

“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.”

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: Monell Chemical Senses Center