Decreased ability to identify odors can predict death: Olfactory dysfunction is a harbinger of mortality

Posted on October 2, 2014

For older adults, being unable to identify scents is a strong predictor of death within five years, according to a study published October 1, 2014, in the journal PLOS ONE. Thirty-nine percent of study subjects who failed a simple smelling test died during that period, compared to 19 percent of those with moderate smell loss and just 10 percent of those with a healthy sense of smell.

The hazards of smell loss were "strikingly robust," the researchers note, above and beyond most chronic diseases. Olfactory dysfunction was better at predicting mortality than a diagnosis of heart failure, cancer or lung disease. Only severe liver damage was a more powerful predictor of death. For those already at high risk, lacking a sense of smell more than doubled the probability of death.

"We think loss of the sense of smell is like the canary in the coal mine," said the study's lead author Jayant M. Pinto, MD, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago who specializes in the genetics and treatment of olfactory and sinus disease. "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. Our findings could provide a useful clinical test, a quick and inexpensive way to identify patients most at risk."

The study was part of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP), the first in-home study of social relationships and health in a large, nationally representative sample of men and women ages 57 to 85.

"This evolutionarily ancient special sense may signal a key mechanism that affects human longevity," noted McClintock, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology, who has studied olfactory and pheromonal communication throughout her career.

Age-related smell loss can have a substantial impact on lifestyle and wellbeing, according to Pinto, a member of the university's otolaryngology-head and neck surgery team. "Smells impact how foods taste. Many people with smell deficits lose the joy of eating. They make poor food choices, get less nutrition. They can't tell when foods have spoiled or detect odors that signal danger, like a gas leak or smoke. They may not notice lapses in personal hygiene."

"Of all human senses," Pinto said, "smell is the most undervalued and underappreciated - until it's gone."

Precisely how smell loss contributes to mortality is unclear. "Obviously, people don't die just because their olfactory system is damaged," McClintock said.

Source material from University of Chicago