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Can't smell the roses anymore?

Each year, thousands develop a loss of smell

Each year, thousands develop a loss of smell

May 26, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

For the past four years, Dorry Norris has been living an odor-free lifestyle.

She can't smell the mint in her garden nor can she smell her orange tree when it blooms.

Norris, a cookbook author and herb gardener, can't smell the food she eats. Without smell, some food has no taste at all.

This is how it is when you've lost your sense of smell.

For some, it's an unsavory truth: The world really does grow blander with age. No more waking up and smelling the coffee or stopping to smell the roses.

Everything smells like nothing when you've lost the sense of scent.

Smell loss develops in thousands of Americans each year, particularly older Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. Many things can cause smell loss - from Alzheimer's, head trauma and nervous disorders down to getting a cold or growing older, according to the NIH.

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Norris, 79, of Hagerstown, said she is unsure what caused her to lose her sense of smell. She didn't notice the pattern of her symptoms. Eating out was less enjoyable. One year, the blooms from her orange tree seemed to have lost their oomph. She was startled when she could no longer smell the sprigs of mint in her garden.

"Their smell had always brought me so much pleasure," Norris said.

Her doctor told her she had lost her sense of smell. The cause was never determined.

Researchers at the Monell-Jefferson Taste & Smell Clinic in Philadelphia, which receives funding from NIH, are trying to determine what triggers smell loss and how it can be revived, said Dr. Beverly Cowart, clinical director of the smell clinic.

When we sniff, odorants - small, floating molecules - are drawn onto sensory tissue in the nose, Cowart said. Once the odorant touches down, a pattern of signals are sent to the brain, which interprets the signals as a banana, an old sock, perfume, whatever is there before you, Cowart said.

Smell sensors are vulnerable because they are not protected by tissue and are constantly exposed to the outside environment, Cowart said. Smell loss occurs when those sensors get blocked or nerves become damaged.

Roughly 200,000 people visit a physician each year for help with a smell disorder, according to estimates from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a division of NIH that researches senses. According to the health agency, smell disorders are more common as people age. Only 1 to 2 percent of people younger than 65 will experience problems smelling, compared with nearly half for people between 65 and 80.

Smell loss can be treated, but the only treatment options - surgery or the steroid prednisone - are only applicable to people who've lost smell because of inflammation such as chronic sinusitis, and even those options are "heavy handed," Cowart said.

Sometimes the ability to smell can come back on its own, with the regeneration of new sensory tissue. Sometimes it's gone for good, forcing sufferers to learn to live life free of odor, Cowart said.

"It's hard to go over (to) someone's house for dinner and not say you enjoyed your dinner because you really did not enjoy your dinner," Cowart said.

Norris, a former herb columnist for The Herald-Mail, can't smell or taste the herbs she grows in her yard, the same herbs she used to write about.

Norris and others like her, Cowart said, can only taste what their tongues can detect - sweet, sour, bitter and salty.

Because smell and taste arouse similar parts of the brain, people perceive the two as being one and the same, Cowart said. It's the reason why people with smell loss can't detect flavor in certain kinds of foods.

"Somebody puts on a cup of coffee and you can't smell it," Norris said. "But you can remember how it tastes, even though you can't taste it. You sort of think it's good, but you're not quite sold on it."

Since she lost her sense of smell four years ago, Norris has been focusing on another sense - the sense of taste. She is in the early phases of writing a cookbook for people who can't smell.

"I had to deal with it in a way that was most sensible to me - in cooking," Norris said.

Worcestershire sauce, aged cheese, dried fruits and other foods you don't have to smell to taste have become her new favorites. Tomatoes and lemon peel are fabulous, as are sweet-tart strawberries and peaches. Raisins with meat dishes are divine.

"Worcestershire sauce has become my new best friend," Norris said. "I've found that if you put it on ground turkey, it tastes like hamburger."

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