But a diminished sense of smell could mean more than simply missing out on the fragrance of your favorite flowers—it could signal impending death.
Adults with anosmia were 2.4 times more likely to die in five years, compared to those with a keen sense of smell, according to new research from the University of Chicago.
Study authors tested the smell-abilities of more than 3,000 Americans between the ages of 57 and 85 by asking them to identify different scents such as peppermint, orange, fish and rose. Shockingly, an inability to distinguish these everyday smells was a stronger predictor of short-term death risk for participants than cancer, heart failure or lung disease.
The nose knows when something‘s wrong
What’s behind the surprising connection between smell and death risk?
Previous research has linked an inability to smell peanut butter with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s (See: “The Peanut Butter Sniff Test for Alzheimer’s“). But the University of Chicago study is the first to show a strong link between a person’s sense of smell and their chances of death.
“We believe olfaction is the canary in the coal mine of human health,” remark study authors. “Olfactory dysfunction is a harbinger of either fundamental mechanisms of aging, environmental exposure, or interactions between the two.”
It turns out the schnoz is the sense organ that relies most heavily on new cell growth. If a person’s ability to regenerate cells is compromised by aging and/or a degenerative health condition, then their sense of smell may also decline.
Another possible explanation put forth by scientists is the fact that the human olfactory nerve is exposed to the outside environment, making it more susceptible to damage from airborne toxins and pollutants.
As with most surprising new research, the findings of this study need to be approached from the proper perspective. Just because you have trouble detecting the scent of your favorite blueberry muffins baking in the oven doesn’t mean that your five-year death clock has started to tick.
There are countless conditions that can cause nose troubles—from the common cold to dental problems to certain medications—so there’s no need to panic.
Dr. Jayant Pinto, lead study author and associate professor at the University of Chicago believes his team’s findings could help develop a simple test that doctors could use to monitor the overall health of their patients and identify potential problems earlier on, before more extreme symptoms show.
However, even if there’s no underlying disease that’s causing an individual’s anosmia, not being able to detect certain scents (such as the smell of smoke from an out-of-control fire or a natural gas leak) could be dangerous. A diminished sense of smell can also negatively affect a person’s eating and food safety habits.
The best rule of thumb if your sniffer is on the fritz? Have a doctor take a look.
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