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The aromas of youth may not last forever

In Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming,” she writes about her mother in heart-filled and revealing ways. At one point she relates, “It’s because of my mother that still to this day, I catch the scent of Pine-Sol and immediately feel better about life.”

The aroma that affects me in unexpectedly positive ways is vanilla. Not necessarily the scent that goes with a long-burning candle, but the smell that wafts up when you’re making chocolate chip cookies and you uncap a fresh bottle of pure vanilla extract and splash more than the recipe calls for into your sugary egg mixture. The smell of the baking cookies is wonderful too, but for me, the vanilla moment is almost transforming. I’m also attracted to the smell of a newly lit pipe, Johnson’s baby powder and wood shavings. Pine-Sol, not so much.

As we age, our sense of smell changes; some research uses the word “deteriorates.” It reportedly starts to happen at about age 60. A well vetted National Institutes of Health article (2006) indicated that after age 80, more than 75 percent of older adults have “major olfactory impairment.” Sometimes a lost or decreased sense of smell is exacerbated by sinus conditions or allergies. Certain medications or medical conditions can also affect your ability to identify scents. Sometimes it is simply the aging process. Our ability to smell wears out.

On the face of it, this does not seem to be something to worry about as much as you might about sensory changes that involve hearing or vision. However, for those losses there are audiologists, ophthalmologists, etc., who specialize in ensuring well fitted hearing aids or the best prescription lenses. But “disorders” of taste and smell (they seem to go hand in hand) “present diagnostic dilemmas to the medical profession.” And the reality is a lost or diminished sense of smell can significantly affect quality of life and even be life-threatening, especially for the very elderly person.

One sadly poetic researcher says it like this, “The world is a different place without the sense of smell. Pleasant experiences such as the aroma of flowers in spring, the smell of fresh coffee or even a Sunday roast are lost forever.” Without beckoning aromas, food does not taste nearly as good, and elders may overeat (or over salt) or not eat at all as a result.

The most vivid illustration for me about how life-threatening anosmia (that’s the clinical term) can be was my experience with a cognitively impaired neighbor who put a piece of bread in her toaster oven, turned it on high and sat in her nearby recliner and was oblivious to a rather significant fire that started in her kitchen. The jury is still out, by the way, as to whether a lost sense of smell predicts a diagnosis of one of the dementias or Alzheimer’s disease. That said, a 2015 Web MD article did suggest health providers consider a “smell test” in making their cognitive assessments. I hope that if I find myself in that circumstance, they use vanilla.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.