Older people who did smell training not only improved in odour identification but also in cognitive functions .
By Ben Jhoty
In recent years it’s emerged that loss of smell is one of the earliest signs of dementia.US research shows older people who have difficulty identifying common odours are twice as likely to develop dementia in five years compared to those with no significant smell loss. Bizarrely, the smell of peanut butter is one of the first smells to go. But here’s the thing: smell training could not only reverse declining olfactory ability but also help prevent neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
A study published in The International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found older people who did smell training not only improved in odour identification but also in cognitive functions such as verbal fluency, more than participants who completed Sudoku puzzles. The reason is that unlike other senses, the olfactory bulb connects to the amygdala, responsible for processing emotions and the hippocampus, which handles associative learning. This area of the brain is also highly neuroplastic.
“I think everyone should be smell training,” says Kelly. “We’re going to lose our smell as we age in the same way we lose our eyesight. We know the brain is plastic. We know smell training can change the structure of your brain. It’s a very, very powerful tool.”
The act of trying to identify an odour, as I did with the lavender extract, forces you to raid the emotional part of your brain to make a link. It’s not always easy. “You’re creating new neural pathways,” says Fullerton. “You’re toning up the connection between perception, analysis and recognition. It’s like a muscle. You’re actually toning up your memory.”
She’s not speaking entirely figuratively here. Consider the case of sommeliers, who possess perhaps the most acute sense of smell of all. A study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that in the brains of master sommeliers, both the right insula and entorhinal cortex areas, associated with memory capacity, were larger and more developed than in a control group. As a result, their brains were found to be more resistant to neurodegenerative diseases.
I put this to one of Australia’s leading sommeliers, Manuel Conti, who works at Sydney’s Black Bar & Grill and won the Ruinart Sommeliers Challenge earlier this year. “I believe it could be because we are constantly training and trying to connect the smell to something else,” says Conti, who hails from Tuscany and grew up in a family that ran a gourmet food and beverage shop.
How much does he train? In the lead up to a competition Conti is nose-in-glass two or three times a week with a group of other sommeliers, mimicking competition conditions, which stipulate they must identify six wines in 24 minutes. He also practises on his own for another 10-15 hours a week. “It’s never enough,” he says. “You’re a fool if you think you know everything about wine.”
But while the applied training is necessary, it’s what he does away from the bottle that really helps build the breadth and range of his olfactory abilities. Conti literally smells everything. At a market, he ignores the raised eyebrows of vendors and sticks his nose right up close to fruit and vegetables and breathes in. “Sometimes you look a bit stupid,” he says. “But there is no other way.” He advises you do the same at the supermarket and at home in your cooking and also, of course, with fragrances. And make sure you set yourself blind challenges. Only then do you truly engage your memory.
That night I crack open a bottle of Sauv Blanc and stick my beak in. I close my eyes and inhale the primary aromas as Conti had instructed. I’m smelling peach, which immediately conjures an image of my neighbours’ kitchen table 35 years ago back in country Victoria. I feel like I’m time travelling. I begin to wonder if every bottle of wine can transport me so completely.
At the same time, I’m reminded of something Forrest said to me. He was talking about his appreciation for his magnified sight and amplified hearing but for you and me, it applies equally to our smell. “You have to appreciate what you’ve got,” he says. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Breaths comes in pairs except for two times in our lives – the beginning and the end.