Age-Related Loss of Sense of Smell Correlates with Degree of Frailty

The many aspects of degenerative aging arise from a smaller set of common underlying processes of damage, giving rise to a web of interacting consequences. It can be hard to pin down the chains of cause and effect, and the degree to which any one contributing cause is responsible for the end result, but nonetheless many aspects of aging correlate with one another for the simple reason that the root causes are much the same. This can be the case even when degeneration occurs in very different bodily systems. For example, as shown here, loss of sense of smell and general physical frailty show a correlation.

To examine the relationship between frailty and olfaction, the research team analyzed data from 1,160 older adults enrolled in the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project between 2015 and 2016. The mean age of subjects was 76 and 55.7% were female. Participants were exposed to five scents to measure olfactory identification and six scents to measure sensitivity levels. Results were then matched to a subject's frailty score.

Researchers concluded that for every one-point increase in both olfactory identification and sensitivity scores, there was a significant and meaningful reduction in frailty status, implying that improvements in smell were associated with improved health status and resilience of older results. Conversely, the worse the sense of smell, the frailer a subject was, suggesting that smell loss can be a measurable biomarker and potential risk factor for frailty in older adults.

Although these findings in older adults add to a body of literature that suggests the sense of smell can be a bellwether of frailty and impending mortality, the relationship of these unique sensory losses with unhealthy aging over time is unclear. Common consequences of smell loss include a loss of appetite, difficulty monitoring personal hygiene, depression, and an inability to detect toxic fumes. In older adults, this may be associated with weight loss, malnutrition, weakness, inadequate personal care, and even potential injuries caused by gas leaks or fires.


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