Older adults are better able to recognize the sweet smells, like vanilla, than savory ones, like onions.

Research has backed the theory that people begin losing their sense of smell at the age of 55. However, scientists are now finding that it's not an all-encompassing loss. According to a new study published in the journal Food Quality and Preference by University of Copenhagen researchers, people can still sense the smells of specific foods as they age. In fact, sweeter smells (like vanilla) are recognizable off the bat, while more savory foods (like meat and onions) are harder to identify.

Senior grandparents and granddaughter preparing food indoors in kitchen
Credit: Halfpoint Images / Getty

The team rounded up 251 Danes between 60 to 98 years of age as their study volunteers. Additionally, they had 92 people between 20 to 39 years of age as their control group. The researchers tested the older volunteers' recognition of everyday food odors in comparison to the younger people. "Our study shows that the declining sense of smell among older adults is more complex than once believed," Eva Honnens de Lichtenberg Broge said. "While their ability to smell fried meat, onions, and mushrooms is markedly weaker, they smell orange, raspberry, and vanilla just as well as younger adults."

"A declining sense of smell in older adults seems rather odor specific," Honnens de Lichtenberg Broge added. "What is really interesting is that how much you like an odor is not necessarily dependent on the intensity perception." The older adults still liked the smell of savory food, like fried meat, onions, and mushrooms. On the other hand, they didn't like the smell of coffee as much as the younger people.

The researchers do have some ideas as to why older adults' loss of smell is odor specific. "This may be due to the fact that these are common food odors in which saltiness or umami is a dominant taste element," Honnens de Lichtenberg Broge said. "It is widely recognized that salty is the basic taste most affected by aging. Since taste and smell are strongly associated when it comes to food, our perception of aroma may be disturbed if one's taste perception of saltiness is impaired to begin with." Plus, thanks to their findings, restaurant owners and food vendors can help boost the dining and eating experience for older adults. "Our results show that as long as a food odor is recognizable, its intensity will not determine whether or not you like it. So, if one wants to improve food experiences of older adults, it is more relevant to pay attention to what they enjoy eating than it is to wonder about which aromas seem weaker to them," added Honnens de Lichtenberg Broge.


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