Not smelling as well? (And we don’t mean personal hygiene!)
According to Harvard Health, recent studies show that an inadequate sniffer could be a red flag when it comes to determining one’s risk for developing cognitive impairments (what the medical field calls dementia).
While much more research needs to be done before smell becomes a reliable diagnostic test for memory loss, a study published last year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society claims that scientists might have picked up the scent on a new correlation.
Last September, the journal published a study conducted by otolaryngologist Jayant M. Pinto in which nearly 3,000 adults ages 57 to 85 were asked to smell and identify five odors.
Study participants, who did not have not have dementia, were asked to smell and name the odors of peppermint, orange, rose, leather and fish. Researchers followed up with participants five years later to see whether they had developed memory-related issues.
The results of the study showed that nearly 50% of those who scored poorly on the smell test, either failing to detect certain odors or misidentifying them, had been diagnosed with a cognitive illness. Of those participants who scored well on the smell test, only 21% had been diagnosed with a dementia-type condition.
Scientists believe that a person’s sense of smell may be affected by the same protein tangles in the brain that cause memory loss, resulting in a decrease in one’s ability to smell as these protein build-ups grow. However, there are many other, treatable conditions that can affect one’s smell, such as sinus issues, nasal polyps and inflammation. A poor sense of smell does not necessarily mean the diagnosis of a cognitive impairment.
Of course, researchers are far from determining exact causations from this new correlation. For now, Pinto suggests that a person’s poor sense of smell be used to mark them as higher-risk for developing dementia. Someone who performs poorly on a smell test, or any other sensory exam for that matter, should be monitored closely by his or her doctor to detect any other early signs of memory loss.
There’s still some work to be done before something such as a smell test can serve as a diagnostic tool for cognitive illness. However, as more studies are completed, we may come that much closer to solving the mysteries that surround memory loss, its detection and possible treatments.
Jennifer S. Sharp BSW, NHA, PCHA
Vice President of Senior Living Operations
Diakon Senior Living Services