There are a lot of tests and exams we all know that are important to catching a condition early on or in some cases even before it appears. We know at what age and how frequently to have a colorectal exam, we know to go to our dentist twice a year, our personal physician once a year and a whole host of other regularly-scheduled tests to maintain our health and well being. And then there are the more subtle indictors… subtle because they progress quite slowly and it may be difficult to discern at what point we really do need to have our vision tested, our hearing assessed or our balance scrutinized by a health care professional.
But how many of us notice when our host’s kitchen doesn’t smell wonderful when we arrive for a dinner party, or when the roses are worth stopping to smell or when it is time to take out the trash…I really mean past the time to get the garbage out of the kitchen? And how many of us give a thought to how important our olfactory sense is for not just enjoying what is in the air all around us, but also a very good leading indicator of our living or dying?
In an analysis of more than 20,000 patients in a number of studies – this is called a “meta-analysis” – scientists have found that “olfactory impairment,” or loss of smell, statistically predicts risk of dying. There was a lot of news early on in our COVID-19 pandemic about the loss of smell among those infected by the virus. But that was not predicting mortality; it was a side effect of the infection. The scientists who conducted this meta-analysis across a number of clinical studies found that not only is loss of smell linked to a number of chronic diseases, it’s also a general leading indicator of death, especially among older adults. It is enough of a worry that these scientists have now given this condition a name, “olfactory impairment” (OI). (Of course, they give it a label…)
As many as half of individuals age 65 to 80 years have OI, and it is linked to a number of nutritional, neurodegenerative, cardiovascular and immune disorders. This is not to say that loss of smell causes these other life-threatening disorders, but the link is statistically clear. It’s not just about being able to stop and smell the roses; it’s about catching a potentially life-threatening medical condition in the early stages when it can be more productively addressed. If you or an older loved one seem unable to discern an odor that others around can smell, the OI may be nothing to sniff at. Want to read more from the scientists who have been investigating this condition, click here.
Charlotte Bishop is a Caregiver Coach, an Aging Life Care Advisor, a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.