"I would not be surprised if someday the sense of smell was included as a simple checkup, to see if this important human sense is affected", said senior researcher Dr. Honglei Chen, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University. Researchers then classified participants as having good, moderate or poor sense of smell.
During 13 years of follow-up, 1,211 participants died.
The association was largely limited to people who reported themselves in good or excellent health at the start of the study, Chen noted. However, these conditions only explained 28 percent of the increased risk, leaving most of it unexplained.
The authors wrote: "This study provides clear evidence of an association between poor olfaction and long-term mortality among older adults". In total, that meant about three quarters of those with a poor sense of smell died.
'Our study is the first to look at the potential reasons why it predicts a higher mortality'.
Prof Robert Howard, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at UCL who did not work on the paper, described it as "carefully conducted".
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"We don't have a reason for more than 70 percent of the increased risk". "This is because the earliest location of neuropathology in these conditions is in the olfactory system".
Chen points out that a poor sense of smell may be an early and even sensitive predictor for deteriorating health, but that people are often unaware that their sense of smell is worsening and it is rarely factored in during health checks by doctors. "This is unsurprising, given the contribution of smell to our sense of taste and flavour and enjoyment of food".
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'There are lots of differences between the people who could smell well and those who couldn't, apart from their sense of smell, and any differences in death rates could be due to these other differences and not to the sense of smell at all.
"While scientists are exploring the potential of smell tests to help detect diseases like Alzheimer's at an early stage, these need to be refined and carefully evaluated in clinical trials before they could be used to support a diagnosis".
The team analyzed the sense of smell among 2,300 people aged between 71 and 82.
'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.