•  A long-term study of nearly 3,000 adults, aged 57 to 85, found that those who could not identify at least four out of five common odors were more than twice as likely as those with a normal sense of smell to develop dementia within five years.
  • 78 percent of those tested were normal – correctly identifying at least four out of five scents
  • 14 percent could name just three out of five
  •  5 percent could identify only two scents
  • 2 percent could name just one
  • 1 percent of the study subjects were not able to identify a single smell.
  • Five years after the initial test, almost all of the study subjects who were unable to name a single scent had been diagnosed with dementia.
  • Nearly 80 percent of those who provided only one or two correct answers also had dementia
  • “These results show that the sense of smell is closely connected with brain function and health,” said J. M. Pinto, MD, a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago and ENT specialist.
  • “We think smell ability specifically, but also sensory function more broadly, may be an important early sign, marking people at greater risk for dementia.”
  • Loss of the sense of smell is a strong signal that something has gone wrong and significant damage has been done to the brain
  • Simple smell test could provide a quick and inexpensive way to identify those who are already at high risk for cognitive decline and dementia.
  • The study, “Olfactory Dysfunction Predicts Subsequent Dementia in Older US Adults,” published September 2017, in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, follows a related 2014 paper, in which olfactory dysfunction was associated with increased risk of death within five years.
  • Loss of the sense of smell was a better predictor of death than a diagnosis of heart failure, cancer or lung disease.
  • Researchers used a well-validated tool, known as “Sniffin’Sticks.” These look like a felt-tip pen, but instead of ink, they are infused with distinct scents. Study subjects smell each item and are asked to identify that odor, one at a time, from a set of four choices. The five odors, in order of increasing difficulty, were peppermint, fish, orange, rose and leather.

Test results showed that:

  •  78.1 percent of those examined had a normal sense of smell; 48.7 percent correctly identified five out of five odors and 29.4 percent identified four out of five.
  • 18.7 percent, considered “hyposmic,” got two or three out of five correct.
  • The remaining 3.2 percent, labelled “anosmic,” could identify just one of the five scents (2.2%), or none (1%).

The olfactory nerve is the only cranial nerve directly exposed to the environment. The cells that detect smells connect directly with the olfactory bulb at the base of the brain, potentially exposing the central nervous system to environmental hazards such as pollution or pathogens. Olfactory deficits are often an early sign of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. Olfactory deficits get worse with disease progression.

Losing the ability to smell can have a substantial impact on lifestyle and wellbeing. “Smells influence nutrition and mental health,” Pinto said. People who can’t smell face everyday problems such as knowing whether food is spoiled, detecting smoke during a fire, or assessing the need a shower after a workout. Being unable to smell is closely associated with depression as people don’t get as much pleasure in life.”

Researchers noted that the olfactory system has stem cells which self-regenerate, so “a decrease in the ability to smell may signal a decrease in the brain’s ability to rebuild key components that are declining with age, leading to the pathological changes of many different dementias.”

“Of all human senses, smell is the most undervalued and underappreciated – until it’s gone.”

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Reference: The University of Chicago Medical Center October 2017


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