By Mark Salamon, June 1, 2017
A groundbreaking new study out of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, PA, has shown that women who have a diminished sense of smell as they get older have poorer social lives. Johan Lundstrom, Ph.D., senior author of the study which was published in the Journal of Scientific Reports, was inspired by “anecdotal accounts from women who have lost their sense of smell about having fewer friends than they had previously”. These accounts played out in the laboratory, where women with poor scores on odor identification tests socialized less frequently and had fewer friends and close relatives.
I don’t know about you, but I was stunned by these findings, because I had no idea that there was even such a thing as a woman with a poor sense of smell. Every woman I have ever known has been routinely able to smell things like the neighbor using a different brand of fabric softener, whereas every man I have ever known, myself included, would have a hard time picking out the scent of a rotting corpse, even if it was in the same room. And the “anecdotal accounts” mentioned above have prompted me to seriously rethink the questions I ask when I evaluate patients. I treat many older patients, and I get pretty in depth with my history taking, and I have never had a patient even mention their sense of smell.
The researchers also seemed mystified by the additional finding that this correlation between diminished smell and poor social lives was not evident in older men. This was actually the only conclusion that made sense to me, because in order to have a diminished sense of smell, you must first have a sense of smell to begin with.
At any rate, for those stricken with this condition, the researchers give the following radical advice, “older women experiencing a decline in their sense of smell may want to think about maintaining their social life in order to improve their health and well-being”. They also recommend “smell training”, which has been shown to work on both men and women. As a trained health care professional who advocates for evidence-based medicine, I would like to say that it would take a lot more research and about a fifth of Jack Daniels to convince me that smell training works on men.
But this all begs the question of why sense of smell has anything to do with social lives. Since I am a male who went to college, I decided to start there in pondering this question. The social lives of the males I went to college with consisted of things like beer, farting contests, vomiting, never cleaning, never doing laundry, and eating things specifically designed to gross other people out. All of these wholesome activities can be enjoyed and performed at a much higher level when the sense of smell is missing, which validates the above findings concerning men.
But what about women? I have to admit I was so immersed in the above activities in college that I can’t recollect the main attributes of women’s social lives, except for the few that joined in on our activities. But I have three college and high school aged daughters, and I have observed their social lives consisting of things like making food that actually tastes good, going to places that my college self would not be allowed in due to my appearance and aroma, drinking beverages that cost more than fifty cents a pitcher, and wearing clothes that have been laundered more than once in the past six months.
So maybe smell really is associated with social lives. Authors of the study suggest that future research include looking for similar correlations in younger women, which I believe I have just done, but I am wholeheartedly in favor of spending a lot more of our precious research dollars to make the results official. Or maybe we should just accept the fact that smell, socializing, and everything else all just decline at roughly the same rate as we get older, and funnel that research money towards something that would really improve the state of the world, like mandatory smell training for men.