The sense of smell declines with age, but a new study shows that this loss doesn’t happen across the board. The findings may help care providers improve the meals and dining experiences of older adults in residences like nursing homes, the researchers say.

Danish investigators measured participants’ perception of common food odor intensity, and determined how much they liked the odors. Test subjects included 251 Danes ages 60 to 98 years of age, and a control group with 92 people between the ages of 20 and 39. 

Loss of smell was odor-specific, their analysis revealed. The largest drop in intensity perception was seen for savory odors; fried meat, mushroom and onion, for example. But older study participants sensed the odors of orange, raspberry and vanilla just as fully as younger people do, reported Eva Honnens de Lichtenberg Broge, of the University of Copenhagen.

What’s more, weakened smell did not necessarily affect participants’ enjoyment of food, the researchers added. The odor of savory foods such as meat was weaker to older participants, but not their interest in eating it.

Honnens de Lichtenberg Broge and colleagues anticipate that their findings may be used to help improve the meals and dining experiences of older adults. One in 5 Danish nursing home residents are malnourished, they said, as are half of all seniors admitted to Danish hospitals, they reported.

“As long as a food odor is recognizable, its intensity will not determine whether or not you like it,” said Honnens de Lichtenberg Broge. “So if one wants to improve the food experiences of older adults, it is more relevant to pay attention to what they enjoy eating than it is to wonder about which aromas seem weaker to them,” she concluded.

In a meta-analysis of recent studies, approximately 20% of nursing home residents had some form of malnutrition. But the definitions of malnutrition were variable and prevalence ranged from 1.5% to 66.5%, investigators reported. The current study was published in the journal Food Quality and Preference.