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Thursday, 4 July 2013

Taste and smell: What is it like to live without them?

Double Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell says he is unable to smell or taste very much due to a brain injury he suffered. What is life like without these senses?
Duncan Boak lost his sense of smell in 2005 after a fall resulted in a serious brain injury. With smell said to be responsible for 80% of the flavours we taste, the impact of losing it has been huge.
"It's so hard to explain but losing your sense of smell leaves you feeling like a spectator in your own life, as if you're watching from behind a pane of glass," he says.
"It makes you feel not fully immersed in the world around you and sucks away a lot of the colour of life. It's isolating and lonely."
Like Boak, double Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell suffered a serious brain injury. He was hit by a petrol tanker while riding a bike in the US in 2010. In an interview with the Radio Times this week he said he was now unable to smell or taste very much.
James Cracknell and Sir Steve Redgrave
Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell damaged his sense of smell in 2010
Eating is just something he has to do to survive, like putting petrol in a car.
The loss of taste, known as ageusia, is rare and has much less of an impact on daily life, say experts. Most people who think they have lost their sense of taste have actually lost their sense of smell. It's known as anosmia and the physical and psychological impact can be devastating and far reaching.
"Studies have shown that people who lose their sense of smell end up more severely depressed and for longer periods of time than people who go blind," says Prof Barry C Smith, co-director and founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses.
"Smell is such an underrated sense. Losing it doesn't just take the enjoyment out of eating, no place or person smells familiar anymore. It is also closely linked to memory. Losing that emotional quality to your life is incredibly hard to deal with."
Sue Mounfield lost her sense of smell three years ago after having the flu. She says the smells she misses the most are not to do with food.
"It's things like smelling my children, my home and my garden. When they're gone you realised just how comforting and precious these smells are. They make you feel settled and grounded. Without them I feel as if I'm looking in on my life but not fully taking part."
Losing your sense of smell also makes the world a much more dangerous place. Even in the womb smell and taste are "gatekeepers" for allowing things into our bodies and rejecting harmful toxins, says Smith.
It nearly had extremely serious consequences for Alan Curr, who lost his sense of smell after knocking himself out in a gym lesson when he was eight.
"When I was at university someone left the gas on by accident. I was home all day but never noticed. At about 3pm my flatmates returned and I was in a bit of a daze but had no idea why. They smelt gas as soon as they walked in the door."
Boak says he only really started to understand why he was feeling depressed six years after his accident. He started to read about the sense of smell and had a "road to Damascus" realisation that it was the reason he was feeling such emotions. He has now set up the UK's first anosmia support group, Fifth Sense.
From BBC News

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