A person breathes essential oils while sleeping

For many adults, with aging comes memory loss and other changes to mental health . But, a new study suggests that breathing certain fragrances while sleeping may dramatically improve learning and memory for aging adults.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, studied 43 men and women between the ages of 60 and 85. Their goal: To better understand how fragrance affects the brain. Each participant was healthy, with no evidence of memory loss, problems with thinking or learning or dementia. 

The scientists assigned the participants to one of two groups. Over the course of six months, the first group received one of seven diffused essential oils rotating nightly. The essential oils used were rose, orange, eucalyptus, lemon, peppermint, rosemary, or lavender. The second control group received nothing other than a substance with minimal scent. Participants were asked to turn the diffuser on when they went to bed, and the fragrance was released for the first two hours of their sleep.

To determine progress, the researchers conducted a series of tests at the beginning and end of the trial. These included brain assessments and a memory assessment called the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test. 

Finally, they tested participants’ working memory, planning, attention switching, and sense of smell. The results showed a significant 226% improvement on the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test in participants who had breathed fragrance at night. Scientists also noted improvement in a part of the brain associated with language function.

The study drew on prior research on mice that showed daily exposure to scents can improve memory. In particular, the scientists knew they should try fragrances individually rather than as mixtures because single fragrances are more likely to have a positive effect. Scientists have also understood the connection between the sense of smell and brain health from previous studies. Knowing these two things and that memory loss is a growing problem for older populations, researchers wanted to find affordable yet effective treatments that aging adults could manage on their own.

Memory loss in the United States is a common problem. In fact,  40% of people over 65 report some form of memory issue. This amounts to nearly 16 million Americans, with about 1% progressing to dementia.  

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This study adds to scientists’ knowledge of the benefits of exposure to certain fragrances, and these positive findings may prompt additional, more extensive studies involving more participants. Meanwhile, older adults can try this simple, affordable option for boosting their memory—one they can consider from the privacy of their homes.

5 Sources

  1. National Institute on Aging (2022, February 23) What Do We Know About Healthy Aging?, Retrieved August 31, 2023 from

  2. Woo, C. C., Miranda, B., Sathishkumar, M., Dehkordi-Vakil, F., Yassa, M. A., & Leon, M. (2023). Overnight olfactory enrichment using an odorant diffuser improves memory and modifies the uncinate fasciculus in older adults. Frontiers in neuroscience, 17, 1200448.

  3. Veyrac, A., Sacquet, J., Nguyen, V., Marien, M., Jourdan, F., and Didier, A. (2009). Novelty determines the effects of olfactory enrichment on memory and neurogenesis through noradrenergic mechanisms. Neuropsychopharmacology 34, 786–795.

  4. Murman D. L. (2015). The Impact of Age on Cognition. Seminars in hearing, 36(3), 111–121.

  5. Small G. W. (2002). What we need to know about age related memory loss. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 324(7352), 1502–1505.


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