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Study: Loss of Smell a Marker for Alzheimer's Onset

Researchers say detecting Alzheimer's Disease early could come down to testing how well someone can detect smells. (Werner/iStockphoto)
Researchers say detecting Alzheimer's Disease early could come down to testing how well someone can detect smells. (Werner/iStockphoto)
July 29, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - Researchers are making progress in their studies of the disease that took the life and mind of famed UT women's basketball coach Pat Summit. Researchers at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Canada say early detection of the disease could come down to smell. This week, they presented a study that showed people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease are worse at identifying odors than those who are not.

One of the attendees, Doctor Jeffrey Kaye, director of the Layton Aging and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Oregon Health and Science University, said memory and sense of smell are closely linked.

"It may be that there's an association by just happening to be nearby, or it may be more intrinsic, that there's something about the olfactory nerve cells that makes them more susceptible," he said.

In one study, researchers chose about 400 participants with an average age of 80 for a smell identification test. Four years after the study began, 50 people showed signs of dementia and scored lower on the identification test, in some cases before areas of the brain began to show significant signs of atrophy in brain scans.

Kaye warned that a smell test alone can't be used to determine if a person has Alzheimer's disease. However, the test is cheap and easier to administer than a brain scan, and could be used alongside other tests for people who are worried about memory loss or a genetic predisposition to the disease. Kaye added there's much more interest in the disease today than when he started.

"I've been in this field for over 25 years, and it is truly remarkable the changes that have happened," he added. "And it's important because it is a public health problem that we're going to be facing, with the growth in numbers of people who are affected by dementia."

An estimated 30,000 people in Utah" target="parent">30,000 people in Utah and more than five million nationally have Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The national number is expected to increase to 16 million by 2050.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - UT