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Can't Smell? You're More Likely to Die Within 5 Years

Update Date: Oct 01, 2014 09:43 PM EDT

Losing the sense of smell predicts the risk of dying within five years, according to a new study on seniors.

Researchers found that losing the ability to identify scents is a strong predictor of mortality within five years in older adults.

Researchers used data from 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 individuals between 57 and 85. Researchers surveyed 3,000 participants between 2005 and 2006 to evaluate their ability to identify five distinct common odors from a set of four choices. The odors included peppermint, fish, orange, rose and leather.

Researchers found that 39 percent of participants who failed the first smelling test died before the second survey, which was conducted between 2010 and 2011. Nineteen percent of participants who experienced moderate smell loss and 10 percent of those with a healthy sense of smell died in the same time period.

Furthermore, participants who lacked a sense of smell before the start of the study were twice as likely to die within five years.

"We think loss of the sense of smell is like the canary in the coal mine," lead author Jayant M. Pinto, MD, associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago, said in a news release. "It doesn't directly cause death, but it's a harbinger, an early warning system, that something has already 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 findings were published Oct. 1 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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