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Percept Psychophys. 1993 Sep;54(3):296-302.

Variability of olfactory threshold and its role in assessment of aging.

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  • 1John B. Pierce Laboratory, New Haven, CT 06519.

Erratum in

  • Percept Psychophys 1993 Oct;54(4):562.


Olfactory thresholds of elderly persons (over 65 years) average one to two orders of magnitude higher than those of young adults (under 30 years). Past studies reveal enormous spreads (typically about three orders of magnitude) of individual thresholds within each age group and extensive overlap between the two groups--enough to question how typically decline in sensitivity characterizes the individual aged person. The present study shows that much of the observed overlap is misleading, because the brief threshold tests usually administered tend to exaggerate individual differences. A more representative assessment of an individual's threshold (for 1-butanol) was achieved by averaging the thresholds from two to eight separate short tests, spread over 4 days. The spread of each group's thresholds (12 young and 12 elderly subjects) narrowed strikingly as the number of tests averaged increased from one to four; further tests accomplished no additional narrowing of spread. Based on a single test, thresholds of young and elderly overlapped in the usual way; but based on four or more tests, thresholds of young and elderly overlapped little or not at all. The outcome (1) argues that decline in smell sensitivity seems to be, after all, a common feature of aging, and (2) sheds light on the sources of variability of sensory thresholds.

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