Olfaction in (Social) Context: The Role of Social Complexity in Trajectories of Older Adults' Olfactory Abilities

J Aging Health. 2023 Jan;35(1-2):108-124. doi: 10.1177/08982643221108020. Epub 2022 Jun 23.


Objectives: Olfaction is an important correlate of later-life health, including cognition and mortality risk. Environmental enrichment protects against olfactory decline, yet little research considers the social context as a source of sensory enrichment or stimulation. This study examines how exposure to social complexity (i.e., diversity or novelty in social networks and activities) shapes later-life olfaction. Methods: Cross-sectional and longitudinal ordered logit models analyze data from 1,447 older adults interviewed at Rounds 1 and 2 of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project. Results: Exposure to greater social complexity (larger social networks, greater network diversity) is associated with significantly better olfaction at baseline. Increases in network diversity and fewer network losses significantly protect against olfactory decline over time. Discussion: Findings highlight the social context as an important, yet relatively overlooked source of sensory enrichment, and underscore the need for biological applications to integrate social life dynamics into studies of health trajectories.

Keywords: aging; olfaction; sensory functioning; social complexity; social networks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging*
  • Cognition
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Smell*
  • Social Networking