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Your Sense of Smell Is Way More Important Than You Think

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Of all your senses, the sense of smell is probably the one you spend the least time thinking about. The smell of freshly cut grass, baking bread, popcorn popping, and an ocean breeze are some of life's simplest pleasures. Yet when you compare them to all the wondrous sights, sounds, and feelings out there, they're all too easy to overlook. But that may be a mistake. According to two new studies, your sniffer is vitally important to everything from your social life to your life span.

Smelling as a social art? In the first study, published in Scientific Reports, researchers looked at data from more than 3,000 older adults, comparing their scores on a sniff test with how often they socialized. They discovered that the worse a woman's sense of smell, the more likely she was to be isolated—a depressing state that has plenty of health implications beyond your nose. And this was especially true as the women got older, as the sense of smell declines with age. (And this applies to romantic relationships too, not just friendships: Reduced sense of smell can also be a sneaky cause of low sex drive.)

Fortunately, the connection appears to work both ways. The researchers found that while decreased sense of smell leads to less social activity, women can learn to fine-tune their noses, leading to greater social activity.

Interestingly, it was only women with a reduced sense of smell who had a poorer social life score—men's nose-social life scores were not affected. "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 women by helping to restore both the sense of smell and, by extension, social well-being," said Johan Lundström, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist and senior author on the study, in a press release.

But it's not just your social life that could suffer from a compromised sense of smell. People with reduced smell sensitivity had a 19 percent higher risk of death than people with normal smell function, according to a second study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. In this case, the researchers don't necessarily think the decreased ability to smell was directly causing deaths (as in not smelling smoke during a fire) but rather could be a sign of serious disease in the brain.

When it comes to your health it appears your nose really does know. If you have noticed your sense of smell getting worse, don't brush it off. Talk to your doctor about possible causes and treatments like smell re-training, says Lundström.

 

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