Mar 14, 2018

Dementia and Smell: How Your Nose Can Trigger Your Memory

When a person has dementia, one of the most common symptoms is memory dysfunction.

It’s wrong to assume that a person with dementia has completely lost their memories. Rather, there is dysfunction that makes it challenging for the person to recall it.

The memories of people with dementia are able to affect their actions and behaviours – even if they can’t remember why.

This is called implicit memory, which is defined as “a change in the way a person behaves that is due to an experience that the person does not recall having had”.

When trying to trigger memories, people often turn to visual aids – such as photos and videos – or audio – such as voices or songs. But what about smell?

The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, potentially more so than any other senses.  

Those with full olfactory function may be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories.

For older people, this could be the smell of fragrances they wore then they were younger, or vintage hair products. It could be the familiar smell of the children or grandchildren.

It could even be a deceased spouse’s old clothing.

So how does smell have such a strong connection? Well according to Psychology Today;

Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus.

Smell works in two distinct phases; the first is instinctively connected to our feelings about the smell – essentially, do we like it or not, what does it remind us of, and the second is a more analytical process that leads us to try to identify what the smell is.

One of the reasons why smell is so emotionally driven is because of response to smell is often made by association, simply because different people can have completely different perceptions of the same smell.

For some people, a smell that might be nice and aromatic, for other might be harsh are overpowering.

Aside from smells that are familiar, there are smells that can help soothe. People with dementia are prone to agitation – usually due to an unmet need.

Soothing calming smells, such as lavender, rose, ylang ylang and chamomile – many of which people are familiar with – can help reduce agitation, anxiety, increase appetite and help with sleep.

With proper research, could memory loss be reversed by developing a new form of smell therapy to perhaps encourage memories to resurface and improve cognition and self-identity?

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