There's a unusual link between how well we can smell and our risk of death - but despite ongoing efforts, and a lot of overblown media coverage, researchers still can't figure it out.
People who started out the study in excellent or good health were 62 per cent more likely to die by year 10 when they had a poor sense of smell than when they had a keen nose, researchers report in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Without examining premature deaths specifically, the NHS argues that a poor sense of smell may have had little impact on the overall risk of death.
The sense of smell is known to deteriorate with old age, and research has previously found this might indicate underlying health problems that could result in a greater chance of death in the near future.
Researcher Dr Honglei Chen, from Michigan State University, said: 'Poor sense of smell becomes more common as people age, and there's a link to a higher risk for death.' The US team analysed the sense of smell among 2,300 people aged 71 to 82.
'Our study is the first to look at the potential reasons why it predicts a higher mortality'.
While older adults rarely receive screenings for sense of smell, the researchers hope physicians will consider the practice for regular exams.
While poor sense of smell is an early sign of Parkinson's disease and dementia, and linked to weight loss, this only explained 28% of the increased risk of death. The association held across race and gender, which could make it a powerful tool for quantifying health, the researchers wrote.
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'Incorporating a sense of smell screening in routine doctor visits might be a good idea at some point.' Dr Chen said people who were anxious about their sense of smell should talk to their GP.
Dr Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "This is well-conducted research, but there are many reasons why someone's sense of smell could change and it's not necessarily a sign of a disease".
Now experts say they have probed further, and those diseases alone do not explain why a poor sense of smell might bode ill.
Many factors can contribute to a decline in sense of smell, such as dementia or Parkinson's disease, both of which are linked to 22 percent higher mortality risk.
"When you lose your sense of smell, that can have downstream effects on your appetite", explained Kamath.
What's more, it's entirely unclear whether the participants in this study had always possessed a poor sense of smell, or whether this trait had only come about more recently.
Howard agreed with the authors that the "loss of smell may be a marker of generalized aging and should be taken seriously by older people and their doctors".