Your Sense of Smell Could Be Key to Detecting Alzheimer's Disease Earlier

A simple 'sniff test' could help doctors diagnose dementia before symptoms appear, a new study suggests.

In the battle of the senses, smell almost always loses. But findings in a December 2016 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease suggest we shouldn't be so quick to write off our sense of smell, especially as we get older.

It's the latest of several studies to show a close link between sense of smell and cognitive decline, and, more specifically, the possibility that "sniff tests" could be used to help doctors make accurate diagnoses before a patient shows any symptoms of dementia.

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To conduct the study, University of Pennsylvania researchers asked 728 older adults — some healthy, some with Alzheimer's disease, and some with mild cognitive impairment — to try to identify 16 different odors as part of the the Sniffin' Sticks Odor Identification test, which is commercially available. The participants then underwent a standard cognitive assessment.

When the sniff test results were paired with the cognitive test results, diagnoses were significantly more accurate. The cognitive assessment alone correctly classified 75 percent of people with mild cognitive impairments, but combined with the smell test, it detected 87 percent of the cases. The smell test was also useful in identifying healthy people and people with Alzheimer's.

It turns out that your sense of smell plummets during the early stage of Alzheimer's, so it may be one of the first actual symptoms that can be detected. Researchers are now trying to come up with a faster sniff test that can be used at clinics around the world. They're also trying to see if specific proteins in your nose can help detect Alzheimer's even earlier.

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