The smell of freshly baked bread won (by a nose!) a poll to find Britain’s favourite smell. 2000 UK adults took part in this nationwide survey. It was closely followed by the smell of sizzling bacon, cut grass and coffee. To complete the top ten, there was the smell of the seaside, freshly washed clothes, cakes baking, cut flowers, fish and chips and roast dinner.
Who cannot relate to these smells to evoke memories and bring a smile to your face? Smell plays an amazing part in both our memory recall and emotional well being.
The science of smell
Your sense of smell is called the olfactory sense. Upon detecting a smell, the olfactory neurones in the top of the nose send an impulse along the olfactory nerve. This goes right into the central part of the brain, where the limpic system is located.
The limpic system is responsible for information processing. This impacts on how we learn and how we feel. It is the basis of our subconscious memory that influences daily choices we make and our emotions.
All our other senses have to pass through separate parts of the brain before they are processed by the limpic system. The direct route to the limpic system that smell has, is unique. It is something we have hung onto, in human evolution from our early mammal ancestors. It is one of the first senses to develop. Babies, for example, can smell their mothers milk from the moment they are born. It is deeply rooted in our brain and can be, when considering dementia and loss of brain function, the last sense to be lost.
Our sense of smell is therefore hugely important in dementia research and care.
As part of dementia therapy
Smell is linked to our emotional responses and subconscious memories. As it is so deep rooted, it can evoke memories thought long forgotten.
With person centred dementia therapy, it is important to look at smell in two ways. Firstly, how that smell makes us feel and what does it remind us of? Secondly, can we identify what the smell is?
This is a great group activity, easily instigated with our residents without being formally recognised as an activity. Before you know it everyone is chatting about their feelings and memories.
Fish and chip meals are great for this. What better way to conjure up memories of childhood, the seaside and holidays than eating fish and chips – especially directly from the paper, whilst smelling the wafts of battered fish and vinegary chips.
Another chance to chat and reminisce with a resident is to give a soothing hand massage. The scent of lavender or lily of the valley, can conjure memories from home, sunny days in the garden or even their wedding bouquet. It is a quiet time of calm and relaxation. Perfect for reducing anxiety and helping sleep.
We have fantastic chefs in our homes, so there is often the delicious smell of a roast dinner or baked cakes from the kitchen. We also have beautiful gardens and special sensory gardens for our residents to enjoy.
Losing the sense of smell
Losing your sense of smell has been described as a bad drawing – everything is less vivid and less memorable. It is a sense we take for granted and don’t notice is there, but impacts enormously when it is gone. People can feel isolated, have a blunting of emotions and it can cause depression and anxiety.
Sadly the sense of smell is affected by Parkinson’s disease, where 90% of sufferers have a declined olfactory response. Scientists have now shown this can also be the case for people with dementia. In fact, noticing a decline in the ability to smell is now an indicator of the onset of dementia.
A lot of research is being carried out in this field. If you are keen to read more, click on the Alzheimer’s Society link here.
Smells may play a more important role than we already know in memory recall and the progression of dementia.
Each year 21 September is World Alzheimer’s Day. Thank you to everyone for supporting and fundraising for this cause. Hopefully, one day dementia itself will become a distant memory.