What your sense of smell says about your lifespan

As you get older, your senses aren’t as sharp as they used to be…

Suddenly, you have to squint to read the menu board at Panera. And you can’t hear the judges dole out choreography criticism on Dancing with the Stars unless the TV volume’s way up.

What the heck happened?

Well, you’ll be relieved to know (or maybe not?!) that a slight decline in your senses as you get older is normal. Here’s why…

The sensory information around you transforms into nerve signals that go straight to your brain. However, there needs to be a certain amount of sensory information to trigger this process. The amount you need to experience a sensation is called your sensory threshold. And this threshold naturally gets higher with age.

But even though diminishing senses are a normal part of aging, there is one sense you should pay close attention to if it starts to go south — your sense of smell.

A declining sense of smell signals trouble

Before COVID-19, researchers at Michigan State University found that a sluggish sense of smell could increase your risk of dying in the next 10 years… by a lot.

The study included data from 2,300 people between 71 and 82 years old. Participants completed a smell test, and researchers rated their sense of smell as good, moderate or poor. Researchers followed up with these people 10 years later. Here’s what they found…

People with a poor sense of smell were 46 percent more likely to die within the next 10 years.

But why would your sense of smell have anything to do with when you’re going to die?

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Well, even though a diminishing sense of smell is normal with age, it could also be an early sign of a few serious diseases, like Parkinson’s and dementia. Researchers said conditions like this explained about 28 percent of the increased risk they witnessed. But what about the other 70 percent?

Unfortunately, they don’t know what causes the increased risk of death for most people with a failing sense of smell. All they know is this: You should pay attention when your sniffer isn’t up to snuff.

“It tells us that in older adults, impaired sense of smell has broader implications of health beyond what we have already known,” said study author Honglei Chen. “Incorporating a sense of smell screening in routine doctor visits might be a good idea at some point.”

What to do when your sense of smell goes south

So, what should you do if you suddenly can’t smell your morning coffee brewing like you used to?

See your doctor to rule out any health conditions like dementia or Parkinson’s. He or she will also find out whether you’ve had issues like respiratory and sinus infections which can cause a loss of smell.

If there’s no underlying cause, and it’s just due to age, there’s only one thing you can do: Start living extra healthy…

Exercise daily. Eat a Mediterranean diet. Spend time with friends and family. Do the activities and hobbies you love. Start a meditation practice. All these habits are proven to increase your longevity and can (hopefully) offset the risk of dying early caused by your subpar sniffer.


  1. Poor sense of smell associated with nearly 50 percent higher risk for death in 10 years — MedicalXpress
  2. Relationship Between Poor Olfaction and Mortality Among Community-Dwelling Older Adults: A Cohort StudyAnnals of Internal Medicine
  3. How our senses change with age — Harvard Health Publishing
  4. Aging changes in the senses — MedlinePlus
  5. Smell disorders: When your sense of smell goes astray — Harvard Health Publishing
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.