Can you use scent to boost your brain health? 

You may know that there’s a connection between smell and memory. But new research suggests that you can actually improve your cognitive health through scent. Here’s how. 

Older adult couple sitting outside on the porch thinking about scent and brain health

Sometimes, all it takes is a whiff of a specific smell to be transported back in time. In fact, a scent can be so powerful at evoking memories that it makes you emotional when it happens. 

Brain health experts have long been interested in the connection between smell and memories. And now, some studies are even suggesting that odors may be used to improve memory.  

How can you get those brain benefits? Below, experts explain why smell and memories are so closely linked — and how to use that link to boost your cognitive health. 

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How are smell and memory related? 

Ready for a quick science lesson? (It’s interesting — promise!) The olfactory system is the system in your body that senses odors. It’s the body’s only sensory system that has direct input to the brain center responsible for both learning and emotional responses, explains Michael Leon, Ph.D. He’s a professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine School of Biological Sciences. 

When you smell something, the odor travels from your nose to your brain. Specifically, to your limbic system. This part of the brain handles emotion and memory. 

That’s why inhaling an aroma can immediately make you think of a person or event from your past. It also explains why a loss of sense of smell is linked to memory loss

A dulled sense of smell actually is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease, Leon explains. When your sense of smell starts to go, it can indicate that there’s something happening in your brain. It may show that the scent/memory part of the brain is deteriorating. 

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The connection between smell and brain health 

On the other end of the spectrum, a good sense of smell is associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline and slower brain atrophy (which is a loss of connections in the brain that can actually make the brain shrink), notes Qu Tian, Ph.D. She’s an epidemiologist and population health scientist with the National Institutes of Health.  

Tian recently studied the connection between smell and cognitive changes with aging, including memory. Turns out, having a potent sense of smell is a sign that the memory and other cognitive functions such as attention and processing speed of your brain are thriving, says Tian. 

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How to use scent to boost your cognitive health 

So, there’s a clear tie between odor and memory. How can you take advantage of this fact to improve your memory? By improving your sense of smell. 

The more smells you expose yourself to, the more you’re supporting the part of the brain responsible for memory and emotions, explains Leon. This may seem simple, but it takes a conscious effort. 
“Humans don’t get much olfactory action,” says Leon. “Most people get a pop of odor from their shampoo in the morning and a little bit when they eat, but that’s about it.” 

There’s another thing to keep in mind here: The olfactory system becomes damaged as we age. “There are many things that contribute to this damage, including air pollution, toxins, menopause, and stress,” Leon says. All of these factors can negatively impact the brain. 

To support your memory, purposely engage your nose with more smells. It’s a tactic approved by both Leon and Tian. 

​In one study conducted by Leon, sniffing seven different odors a week was linked to a significant improvement in memory. 

On a daily basis, Leon recommends smelling 40 different odors. This amount was shown in a different 2022 study to significantly improve memory in older adults. It may sound like a lot, but there’s a simple way to achieve this: Buy an essential oils set, suggests Dr. Leon. Then actively smell the aromas throughout the day — pay attention to them, notice what memories and emotions they trigger in your brain, and change them up so your brain continues to enjoy the novelty of them. 

Beyond the memory benefits, odors can also improve your mood. Some smells release neurotransmitters in the brain. Think: serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These brain chemicals can lead to feelings of happiness and relaxation. Certain scents may even help reduce anxiety and depression. These include lavender, chamomile, rosemary, and citrus. 

You can use essential oils in many ways. Try some of these options:  

  • Apply a drop to your skin directly (try the wrists). 
  • Blast them into the air through a diffuser. 
  • Put a few drops in a bath or shower.  

Doing these things throughout the day may boost both your memory and mood. And if you happen to walk past a trash bin omitting an odor that even Oscar the Grouch would reject, it’s all right! Even unpleasant scents support your memory. The more smells, the better.  

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Additional sources: 

Olfactory improvement of memory in older adults: Frontiers in Neuroscience 
Olfactory loss and Alzheimer’s disease: BMB Reports 
Odor identification in older adults: Neurology 
Smell and stress response in the brain: Molecules 
Effect of olfactory training: Geriatrics and Gerontology International