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Triggering Memories Through Scent and Smell

Why do smells trigger memories? Scent has the power to generate emotions and memories from a single sniff. When it floats into the nose, it travels to the brain’s olfactory bulbs, and is “read” by the brain and sent along to the amygdala, where emotions are processed. Then it proceeds to the hippocampus where learning and memory formation take place. This all happens in a split second and immediately triggers a reaction. It’s this connection to memory that makes smell therapy a useful treatment for people with dementia.

Many of the scents we smell trigger happier times and positive emotions, although some cause negative reactions. Journalist Lila Walton says she loves the scents of plants and perfumes, not just for triggering memories but also for connecting with nature. “I love the scent of fresh basil, or rubbing my fingers on a scented geranium, sage, or rosemary. For me it creates this snap back to nature, a calming and grounding effect. When I smell lavender, however, it triggers a different feeling altogether; it brings me right back to the last days of my grandmother’s life when I was rubbing lavender-scented lotion on her skin. Somedays I like the smell, other times I don’t.”

How Does Aging Affect Your Sense of Smell?

As you age, there are a number of factors that may reduce your sense of smell. Certain medications taken along with chemotherapy, radiation, and other cancer treatments will alter smell. But many people are able to regain their sense of smell after the end of their treatment. The common cold, flu, allergies, polyps, and the coronavirus are also culprits in minimizing smell. Aging in general deteriorates smell; smoking, respiratory infections, head trauma, and environmental toxins may additionally inhibit smell.

In The Harvard Gazette, Dawn Goldworm, an internationally recognized olfactive expert said, “People do tend to lose their sense of smell as they age. But not to worry,” she added. “Your nose is like a muscle in the body that can be strengthened by giving it a daily workout, not with weights, but with sniffs.”

A recent article in The New York Times suggests physical therapy for your nose. After being affected by the coronavirus, many people are using “smell training,” which is akin to physical therapy for your nose. According to the article, this “involves sniffing several potent scents twice a day, sometimes for months, to stimulate and restore the olfactory system — or at the very least help it function better.” It’s possible to create your own smell training or smell therapy kit or buy one online.

Benefits of Smell Therapy for Dementia

Certain scents can help those living with dementia trigger childhood memories. Everything from baking apple pies to smelling the scent of your mother’s perfume can revive memories in a person living with dementia. What we consider flavor is actually smell as the scent travels into the brain. So to your brain, tasting that piece of freshly baked pie will have the same effect of just smelling it.

Easing the symptoms of dementia, especially high anxiety and aggression, is particularly difficult, but scientists have found that certain scents can help. A study in a Medical Life Sciences article has found that “essential oils, particularly lavender, bergamot, and lemon balm, can help calm the patient and suppress aggression, agitation, and other psychotic symptoms in patients with dementia.”

At Maplewood Senior Living, we offer many opportunities to enhance the sense of smell of our residents. Our open-plan kitchens, flower-filled outdoor spaces, culinary demonstrations, and engaging programming offer a multitude of ways to keep our residents’ noses “working out” on a daily basis. To find out more about our dementia care programming, book a tour today


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