A team of researchers at Michigan State University found that poor sense of smell can mean a higher risk of developing pneumonia in older adults. Acute loss of smell is one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19, but has been linked to other diseases such as Parkinson’s and dementia for the past two decades.
The study was published in the journal Lancet Healthy Longevity. “About a quarter of adults aged 65 and over have a bad sense of smell,” said Honglei Chen, professor in the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at MSU’s College of Human Medicine.
“Unlike visual or hearing impairments, this sensory deficit has been largely neglected. More than two-thirds of people with a bad sense of smell don’t know they have it,” added Chen.
In a unique study, Chen and his team found a possible link between poor sense of smell and a higher risk of pneumonia in the hospital. They analyzed 13 years of health data from 2,494 older adults, ages 71 to 82, from metropolitan areas of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Memphis, Tennessee.
The aim of this study was to investigate whether a poor sense of smell in older adults is associated with a higher future risk of developing pneumonia.
Participants were given a short olfactory identification test (B-SIT) that used common smells like lemons and gasoline to determine if their sense of smell was good, moderate, or bad. Participants were then monitored for the next 13 years through clinical exams and subsequent phone calls to determine whether they were hospitalized for pneumonia.
The researchers found that participants with a poor sense of smell were 50 percent more likely to develop pneumonia at any point during the 13-year follow-up period, compared to participants with a good sense of smell. Those participants (with poor sense of smell) who had never had pneumonia before were about 40 percent higher at risk of developing pneumonia.
“To the best of our knowledge, this study provides the first epidemiological evidence that poor odor (olfactory) production is linked to a higher long-term risk of pneumonia in older adults,” said Yaqun Yuan, a postdoctoral fellow in Chen’s research group.
This study provides novel evidence that a poor sense of smell can have far-reaching health effects beyond its links to Parkinson’s and dementia.
“This is just one example of how little we know about this common sensory deficit. Either as a risk factor or a marker, poor sense of smell in older adults can herald several chronic diseases beyond what we know. We need to think out of.” the box, “concluded Chen.
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