The ability to identify odors predicts morbidity, mortality, and quality of life. It varies by age, gender, and race and is used in the vast majority of survey and clinical literature. However, odor identification relies heavily on cognition. Other facets of olfaction, such as odor sensitivity, have a smaller cognitive component. Whether odor sensitivity also varies by these factors has not been definitively answered. We analyzed data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, a nationally representative study of older US adults (n = 2081). Odor identification was measured using 5 validated odors presented with Sniffin’ Stick pens as was odor sensitivity in a 6-dilution n-butanol constant stimuli detection test. Multivariate ordinal logistic regression modeled relationships between olfaction and age, gender, race, cognition, education, socioeconomic status, social network characteristics, and physical and mental health. Odor sensitivity was worse in older adults (P < 0.01), without gender (P = 0.56) or race (P = 0.79) differences. Odor identification was also worse in older adults, particularly men (both P ≤ 0.01), without differences by race. Decreased cognitive function was associated with worse odor identification (P ≤ 0.01) but this relationship was weaker for odor sensitivity (P = 0.02) in analyses that adjusted for other covariates. Odor sensitivity was less strongly correlated with cognitive ability than odor identification, confirming that it may be a more specific measure of peripheral olfactory processing. Investigators interested in associations between olfaction and health should consider both odor sensitivity and identification when attempting to understand underlying neurosensory mechanisms.

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