News Release

Decreased ability to identify odors may predict 5-year mortality

Olfactory dysfunction may be a signal of mortality for older adults

Peer-Reviewed Publication


For older adults, being unable to identify scents may be a predictor of mortality within five years, according to a study published October 1, 2014, in the journal PLOS ONE by Jayant Pinto from The University of Chicago and colleagues.

The study was part of 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 men and women ages 57 to 85. Researchers first surveyed 3,000 participants in 2005-06, assessing their ability to identify five distinct common odors, one at a time, from a set of four choices. The five odors, in order of increasing difficulty, were peppermint, fish, orange, rose and leather. In the second survey, during 2010-11, the team confirmed which participants were still living. During that five-year gap, 430 (12.5%) of the original 3005 study subjects had died; 2,565 were still alive.

Thirty-nine percent of study subjects who failed the first smelling test died before the second survey, compared to 19 percent of those with moderate smell loss and just 10 percent of those with a healthy sense of smell. For those already at high risk, lacking a sense of smell more than doubled the probability of death. When the researchers adjusted for demographic variables such as age, gender, socioeconomic status (as measured by education or assets), overall health, and race—those with greater smell loss when first tested were substantially more likely to have died five years later. Precisely how smell loss contributes to mortality is unclear, but olfactory dysfunction was better at predicting mortality than a diagnosis of heart failure, cancer or lung disease. Only severe liver damage was a more powerful predictor of death.

"We think loss of the sense of smell is like the canary in the coal mine," said the study's lead author Jayant M. Pinto, MD, associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago. "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."


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Citation: Pinto JM, Wroblewski KE, Kern DW, Schumm LP, McClintock MK (2014) Olfactory Dysfunction Predicts 5-Year Mortality in Older Adults. PLoS ONE 9(9):e107541. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107541

Funding: The National Institutes of Health, including the National Institute on Aging, the Office of Women's Health Research, the Office of AIDS Research, and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (AG021487, AG033903-01, and AG030481). Support was also provided by the National Institute on Aging (AG029795, AG036762, and T32000243), the McHugh Otolaryngology Research Fund, the American Geriatrics Society, The Center on the Demography and Economics of Aging, a Mellon Foundation Social Sciences Dissertation-Year Fellowship, and the Institute of Translational Medicine at The University of Chicago (KL2RR025000 and UL1RR024999). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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