Depressing news for bad smellers

3 minute read

The link between anosmia and having the blues just got stronger.

Thanks to a very successful and highly necessary nasal polypectomy a number of years ago, your Back Page scribbler is effectively anosmic.

While this lack of a sense of smell has its downsides, to this day it seems a small price to pay compared with the previous discomfort of the polyps. In fact on certain noisome occasions, such as being trapped in congested public transport on a humid day, it can be considered a positive advantage.

So we have some skin in the game when we report on a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine showing “significant new evidence” of a link between decreased sense of smell and the risk of developing late-life depression.

While their findings, published last month in Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, do not demonstrate that loss of smell causes depression, the study does suggest it may serve as a potent indicator of overall health and wellbeing.

Phew! Given the purely surgical cause of this writer’s anosmia, that news is personally uplifting.

But this research is not so cheering for older folks who have no obvious causation for a decrease in, or loss of, their sense of smell.

The boffins analysed data from more than 2000 moderately fit adults aged between 70 and 73 when the study began in 1997. The participants were then tested over an eight-year period for things such as mobility, depression and the ability to detect certain odours.

About one-quarter of the cohort developed significant depressive symptoms over the study period, and when analysed further, the researchers found individuals with decreased or significant loss of smell at the start of the study were those who had an increased risk of becoming depressed compared with those in the normal olfaction group.

“We’ve seen repeatedly that a poor sense of smell can be an early warning sign of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, as well as a mortality risk,” study author Vidya Kamath, told media. “This study underscores its association with depressive symptoms.”

Poorer sense of smell was associated with an increased chance of a participant falling into the moderate or high depressive symptoms groups, meaning that the worse a person’s sense of smell, the higher their depressive symptoms. These findings persisted after adjusting for age, income, lifestyle, health factors and use of antidepressant medication.

The boffins said their study suggested loss of smell and depression might be linked through both biological (e.g., altered serotonin levels, brain volume changes) mechanisms and behavioural (e.g., reduced social function and appetite) factors.

So to all you ableist smellers out there, take time out to inhale those rose fragrances, because you really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!

Send story tips to to keep your senses in top nick.

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