Some of us are born with a heightened sense of one sensory ability, while others of us are more limited or challenged. Some have excellent eyesight that may extend over their entire lifetime and never require corrective lenses or even cheaters or reading glasses to help them see or read better. Others are going to be sporting eyeglasses from a very early age – grade school to be sure.
Some people have excellent hearing while others can only hear certain wavelengths. This can change over time as many of us begin to lose some definition in the range of sounds we can hear and experience.
Taste and smell are closely related senses. Don’t believe it? Remember the last time we had a cold or allergy and food didn’t taste the same or didn’t have much taste to it at all? We taste food with our eyes first and then with our nose before it ever gets to our tongue.
Knowing that the sense of smell – also called our olfactory sense – like our other sensory abilities, can vary tremendously among individuals, we are concerned about how it can change as we age – regardless of the benchmark starting point of what ability someone has when they are fifty or sixty.
Unlike our other senses, such as vision or hearing, where we can compensate to accommodate for a decreased ability over time such as weaker vision or the inability to hear as clearly by using corrective lenses, anchor images of things nearby or magnifying glasses to read fine print or even see letters of almost any size or by reading lips or looking for visual clues of what someone might be saying or expressing, our olfactory ability has no such adjustment. If we can’t smell and experience the chocolate chip cookies baking, the cinnamon oozing from a hot apple pie, or the fresh aroma of hazelnut coffee, there just is no way to appreciate what is there. We may still like the taste, although our ability to taste can be compromised by a decreased sense of smell, but we cannot anticipate what we are going to experience by a preview offered through the pleasant aroma or fragrance of what lies before us.
This concerns our ability to experience and enjoy the pleasant scents that are around us in the coffee shop, bakery, kitchen, restaurant, and elsewhere that we might expect to encounter wonderful aromas that stimulate our taste buds and emotions as well as our olfactory sense.
However, what about the safety aspect rather than just the pleasurable one?
What if a person’s sense of smell doesn’t work so well – or it takes longer for them to recognize that odor? Consider the danger posed by smoke from something smoldering in their home that they may not be alerted to in time to respond to it. Perhaps the smoke detectors had not gone off, they weren’t installed in the home, the batteries were stale or dead, or the person didn’t or couldn’t hear them. What about something hot like an iron left on or a pan burned dry of liquid on the cooktop? Heat often has a distinctive and disruptive smell – especially when we aren’t expecting it. If we can’t recognize this telltale warning sign, we can’t respond to it and avert a potentially dangerous situation such as a fire or a serious burn.
How about dangerous fumes or vapors that might be present in the home? Some, such as radon or carbon monoxide are odorless so we can’t be alerted to their presence except by external testing or warning devices that we install and monitor. Nevertheless, there are potential health and safety risks in our home that the presence of an alerting odor or smell will allow us to take action to neutralize them. For a person who doesn’t or can’t recognize such warning smells because they lack the olfactory ability to do so, they can’t respond to these challenges.
A current television commercial for an air freshener has coined the term “nose blind” to refer to people who have become desensitized to odors around them and thus can no longer recognize them. This, or the decreased sensory ability to recognize them, leads to the same condition of perhaps living in an interior environment where the air quality is below par – and potentially injurious.
Let’s just imagine the challenges of living each day as if we had a severe nose cold or sinus condition that prevented us from experiencing the smells, fragrances, and aromas around us. Unfortunately, this can happen as we age to the point that it creates a potentially dangerous and unsafe condition for those experiencing it so that they are not aware of some of the telltale warning signs that otherwise might help them.