Narrator: Our sense of smell is very important. Without it, we would not be able to enjoy food and beverages or the scents and fragrances in our environment. More importantly, we would be deprived of an important warning signal.
Dr. Beauchamp: The sense of smell is important because it serves two main functions. It tells us what is in the environment and it warns us of dangers, such as bad smells, it attracts us to good smells. But it also has another role, in that it allows us to detect the flavors of foods and allows us to appreciate good flavors and bad flavors in food.
Narrator: Maryann Perrett is an older adult who lost her sense of smell.
Maryann: The type of smell problem I have is, I can't smell at all. I have no sense of smell.
Narrator: A sinus infection led to her loss of smell.
Maryann: When I realized I no longer had a sense of smell, I mean, I questioned the doctor and it was just because of my sinuses.
Narrator: Problems with smell can have a major impact on the lives of older people.
Dr. Beauchamp: For older people, a loss of a sense of smell can be very devastating because all of a sudden one of the main senses that they get pleasure from is disrupted and they are unable to appreciate the flavors of foods. They may be unwilling to eat food, it could cause weight loss problems, a whole variety of things come from the loss of smell.
Narrator: Because the sense of smell gradually declines with age, many older people are not aware they have a problem with smell.
Dr. Cowart: One of the most dangerous things for older people is that frequently their smell losses have come on very gradually, and they really aren't aware of how severe the loss is, so they not only can't detect these things, they're not aware that they can't detect them.
Narrator: When smell loss does occur, it can be more than an unpleasant occurrence -- it can be dangerous.
Dr. Cowart: You're not able to detect gas that's leaked. You're less able to detect smoke. You're less able to gauge, for instance, if you're using pesticides or strong cleaners, when you're being over-exposed, because that's -- your sense of smell warns you of that.
Maryann: We have gas in our house, and I could never smell if there was a gas leak. If I'm cooking something or I'm doing breakfast and the toast is burning, I can't smell it until I turn around and see the smoke coming out or the smoke detectors going off.
Narrator: In fact, people who have lost some or all of their sense of smell are more prone to accidents involving cooking, eating or drinking spoiled foods, or failing to detect gas leaks or fires. If you have a smell loss, there are things you can do to ensure your safety.
Dr. Cowart: You need to be sure, as does everyone, obviously, that if you have functioning smoke detectors in your home. It's also possible to purchase home gas detectors and I would recommend that to anyone who has a smell loss and uses gas in their home.
Narrator: Smell and taste are closely linked in the brain, but are actually separate sensory systems. Many people think they have a problem with taste, when what they really have is a problem with smell.
Dr. Beauchamp: People come in and say they've lost their sense of taste for foods. What happens, really, is they've lost their sense of smell and they don't realize that the taste and the smell of food comes together in the mouth and you have a very big difficulty in separating them, unless you do some specific analyses.
Maryann: If it's not spicy or if it's real bland then, you know, I can't taste anything. It has to have a good kick to it in order for me to taste it and plus, I guess, your senses sort of kick in where you rely on what you remember, in regards to the taste of chocolate and you know, strawberries. I don't feel the taste has affected me. because I still like to eat. [ laughs ]