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While losing your sense of smell or taste is a key symptom of COVID-19 infection, coronavirus isn’t the only threat to these senses. With advancing age, “almost everyone has a loss of hearing and vision, but most people also have a loss of smell — and thereby some loss of taste,” says Michael S. Benninger, M.D., professor and chair of the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. As he explains, the dual dulling is part of the gradual reduction of neurologic processes that happens as you get older, although how much you lose varies "in greater or lesser in part due to genetics.”
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Like most parts of your body, your senses of smell and taste are also vulnerable to damage from chemicals, air pollution, illnesses, and other negative influences — all of which can accelerate the natural age-related decline. Here’s a closer look at what’s going on:
How age, allergies and medications factor in
Your sense of smell is fairly stable until age 50. From there, it starts a decline that accelerates after age 60, says Justin Turner, M.D., an associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and director of the Vanderbilt Smell and Taste Center in Nashville. “Part of it is the natural aging process—over time, the olfactory epithelium undergoes numerous insults and injuries.” These can stem from upper respiratory infections, smoking, exposure to environmental toxins or head trauma.
What’s more, people who have chronic nasal and sinus problems — including allergies, nasal polyps, or chronic sinus inflammation — can have more severe and earlier impairment in their sense of smell, Benninger says. And some neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, are associated with a reduced ability to smell, notes Alan Hirsch, M.D., neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.