Smell Loss in Older Adults May Predict Unhealthy Aging, Study Suggests

Scientists say that screening older adults for an impaired sense of smell could be a way to identify those who may be at risk.

Frailty is a growing concern as the population ages. The presence of frailty markers in older adults — such as weight loss, slow walking speed, exhaustion, and weakness — can indicate unhealthy aging and impending mortality.

Previous research suggests that loss of the sense of smell is associated with an increased risk of mortality in older adults.

Looking into this further, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine scientists gathered data from 1,160 older adults enrolled in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project between 2015 and 2016. A little over half of the participants were female, and the average age of all participants was 76.

First, the team analyzed the data to determine the participant’s frailty scores. The researchers then exposed the participants to five scents to measure their ability to identify an odor’s presence and six scents to determine how well the participants could detect and name a smell.

After matching the scent results to the frailty scores, the scientists found that frailty status decreased as olfactory identification and sensitivity scores increased. This means that participants with a better sense of smell had less frailty and improved health and resilience than those with an impaired sense of smell.

Moreover, participants with the most olfactory impairment were also the frailest.

The researchers suggest that smell loss could be a potential risk factor for frailty in older adults. They also note that screening for smell impairment with simple scent tests could be a way of identifying older adults who might be at risk for frailty and unhealthy aging. Then, healthcare professionals could potentially use that information to implement nutritional or other interventions to lessen the risk.

According to a news release, the team is currently investigating whether detailed smell tests could help researchers and healthcare professionals identify at-risk older adults.

The study was published on January 11 in The Journals of Gerontology.

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