Hey, Ladies! Do You Smell That? If not, you probably don’t have as great of a social life as your other female counterparts who do! In a new study conducted by the Monell Center and other collaborating institutions of older U.S. adults, they discovered that a woman’s social life is directly correlated to a functioning sense of smell. They also found that women who performed poorly on smell identification tasks tended to have fewer social interactions.
“Our findings confirm that the sense of smell is a key aspect of overall health in the aging population,” said Johan Lundström, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist and senior Monell author on the study. “More than 20 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 50 has a reduced sense of smell. We need to better understand how olfaction is linked to social behavior in order to improve quality of life as we age.”
The study was published online in the open-access journal Scientific Reports, in which researchers analyzed data received from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSLHP), a study that was population-based examining health and social factors in the United States. Conducted in 2005 and 2006 that focused on a nationally-representative sample of 3,005 American adults between the ages of 57 and 85, the NSHAP data included odor identification test scores and information about participants’ social lives.
The researchers compared the odor identification score of each NSHAP participant, which established a measurement of olfactory function, with an aggregated “overall social life” score, which included measures such as the participants’ numbers of friends and close relatives, as well as how often they socialized. The data were adjusted to control for possible confounding variables, including tobacco use, education level, and mental and physical health status.
The study revealed a clear link between older women’s olfactory ability and their overall social life score: women with a good sense of smell tended to be more social and have more active social lives. Women with a decreased sense of smell had a lower social life score.
“We know that social interactions are closely linked to health status, so older women who have a poor sense of smell may want to focus on maintaining a vital social life to help improve their overall mental and physical health,” said study lead author Sanne Boesveldt, Ph.D., a sensory neuroscientist.
The researchers were surprised when they did not find the same association between sense of smell and social life in older men.
“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 older women by helping to restore both the sense of smell and, by extension, social well-being,” said Lundström.
Though study establishes a link between the sense of smell and social life, it is not yet clear exactly how or why the two are connected or if younger women experience the same social dilemma. In the future, the studies will follow the same subjects and try to clarify whether olfactory loss directly influences a woman’s social life so that the researchers can potentially identify the mechanisms involved.
Just knowing now that the sense of smell is related to social activity could be valuable to those affected by olfactory disorders, and women who suffer from these disorders can try to prevent the loss of their social lives, as well as their sense of smell.
“You hear anecdotal accounts from women who have lost their sense of smell about having fewer friends than they had previously,” said Lundström. “We hope our findings can help reassure them that they are not alone in feeling that way.”