Sensitization to early life stress and response to chemical odors in older adults

Biol Psychiatry. 1994 Jun 1;35(11):857-63. doi: 10.1016/0006-3223(94)90021-3.


This study examined the hypothesis that older persons who currently report illness from environmental chemical odors (cacosmia) may have experienced higher levels of stress early in life than did noncacosmic controls. The hypothesis derives from a time-dependent sensitization (TDS) model for cacosmia (Bell et al 1992) that predicts a relative interchangeability of stress and chemicals in inducing and eliciting sensitized responses in vulnerable individuals. Subjects were selected from those in the top 24% (cacosmic) and bottom 27% (noncacosmic) of a sample of 192 older adults (mean age 73.8 years) for self-reported frequency of illness form the odors of pesticide, car exhaust, paint, perfume, and new carpet. As in previous investigations, cacosmics were younger, more depressed, and more shy; cacosmics also included a higher proportion of women (83% versus 61%). As predicted, cacosmics rated themselves higher in stress for the first four decades of their lives, but not the recent past or present, even after controlling for depression, anxiety, hostility, shyness, age, and gender. Cacosmics reported increased prevalence of physician-diagnosed nasal allergies, breast cysts, hypothyroidism, sinusitis, food sensitivities, irritable bowel, and migraine headache. Only 4% of the overall sample (including 9% of the cacosmics) acknowledged the controversial physician diagnosis of "chemical sensitivity." The replicated observation of greater shyness in cacosmics is consistent with the ability of hyperreactivity to novelty to predict enhanced susceptibility to TDS from low levels of pharmacological agents in animals. The findings support a TDS model for cacosmia and suggest that cacosmia as a symptom identifies a large subset of the nonindustrial population with significant psychophysiological health problems that merit further objective examination.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity / psychology*
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Personality Development*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sick Role
  • Smell*