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A smell test indicates how long you might live


Dr Jayant Pinto with one of the Sniffin' Sticks used to test a patient's ability to identify scents for his research on olfactory dysfunction and aging.
Picture by Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago

At our age, any indicator of life span is of interest of major course, so when at Laterlife we heard about new research that indicated a poor sense of smell might predict a shorter life span, we wanted to find out more.

Laterlife tracked down Dr Jayant Pinto, MD, an associate professor of surgery and a specialist in sinus and nasal diseases at the University of Chicago in America.

He has recently led a research project that has shown that in older adults, a poor sense of smell is a strong predictor of how long we will live. His research showed that people with the poorest sense of smell, who were unable to identify scents, were likely to die within five years.

The researchers said that the hazards of smell loss were “strikingly robust” and offactory dysfunction (ie lack of sense of smell) was better at predicting mortality than a diagnosis of heart failure, cancer or lung disease. The report said that only severe liver damage was a more powerful predictor of death; and for people already at high risk, lacking a sense of smell more than doubled the probability of death.

Dr Pinto said the loss of the sense of smell is like the canary in a coal mine. "It doesn't directly cause death, but it's a harbinger, an early warning that something has gone badly wrong, that damage has been done,” he said. “Our findings could provide a useful clinical test, a quick and inexpensive way to identify patients most at risk."

The study was part of an American National Social Life, Health and Aging Project and involved over 3000 men and women between the ages of 57 and 85. The research used special odour dispensing devices that resembled a felt tip pen. Each was loaded with a different aroma - peppermint, fish, orange, rose and leather.

The research group was followed up over time and the study also involved assessments of the participants age, physical and mental health and other aspects which were taken into account for the final report. Five years later, 39% of the people who had the lowest score in the smell test had died. This compared with 19% of those with medium sense of smell and just 10% of those with a normal sense of smell.

Dr Pinto said that of all the human senses, smell is the most undervalued and underappreciated - until it’s gone.

More research is to be undertaken to find out more about why a loss of sense of smell could be such a strong early warning sign but if you have experienced a definite deterioration in your sense of smell in recent years, it could be worthwhile talking to your doctor.

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