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Can a smell test help identify dementia risk?

Dementia is a devastating, life-altering illness that leads to memory loss and decline of mental abilities over time. What makes dementia even more challenging to deal with is its difficulty to diagnose. However, researchers are now hopeful that a simple smell test could soon have the potential to identify individuals at high risk of the disease.

University of Chicago scientists studied almost 3,000 adults between the ages of 57 and 85 with normal brain function. They were asked to complete a smell test that involved sniffing five different scents: fish, leather, orange, peppermint and rose. The participants were interviewed again five years later to find out if they had been diagnosed with dementia.

All the people who were unable to detect any odors had dementia, as well as 80 percent of those who had only identified one or two smells. Overall, participants who were unable to identify a minimum of four smells had twice the likelihood of having dementia in five years.

The results point to a possible link between a decline in sense of smell and a dementia diagnosis. Surgery professor and lead study author Jayant M. Pinto said, “These results indicate that the sense of smell is closely connected with brain function and health.” He explained that losing one’s ability to smell strongly indicates “significant damage” to the brain.

Pinto and his team said their findings may help lead to the development of a quick, inexpensive test that could identify individuals who are at high risk of dementia. However, more research needs to be done until the test can be used in a clinical setting for screening and diagnostic purposes.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, currently no single test exists that can accurately detect Alzheimer’s, which is a common form of dementia. MRI scans, currently a common test for Alzheimer’s, are not affordable for every patient as they cost thousands of dollars.