Constable: Maine South grad's work links sense of smell, death
The predictor of when you will die isn't right under your nose. It is your nose.
"The sense of smell is like the canary in the coal mine," says Dr. Jayant Pinto, a 1988 graduate of Maine South High School and the lead author of a University of Chicago study that made recent headlines around the globe by finding a distinct relationship between the ability to smell and the likelihood of death among older people. "The sense of smell is really important to people's health."
Growing up in Park Ridge with siblings Ashok and Susanna in a house where parents Eustace and Jackie Pinto still live, Pinto says he has fond childhood memories of the rich aromas of "flowers in the parks, popcorn at the Pickwick and baked goods at Thompson's grocery store."
Smells are powerful enough to trigger memories. Losing the ability to smell carries weighty consequences. The study found that people, age 57 to 85, who failed a simple smelling test were substantially more likely to die within five years. The study concluded that the a diminished sense of smell is a better predictor of impending mortality than a diagnosis of heart failure, cancer or lung disease.
Making headlines in The New York Times, The Guardian and The Economist, the study brought attention to Pinto, who went to college and medical school at Stanford University, and now works as an associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago, where he specializes in sinus and nasal diseases.
"I've been getting inquiries: 'I have a decreased sense of smell. Am I going to die?'" Pinto says people ask him. But it's not that simple.
A common cold and other minor illnesses temporarily can block the sense of smell. Sometimes, olfactory dysfunction can be attributed to allergies, sinus problems, nasal polyps or some other ailments, which can be "readily treatable," Pinto says. Head trauma also can damage the olfactory nerve. But losing the sense of smell with age can be a warning.
"It doesn't directly cause death, but it's a harbinger, an early warning that something has gone badly wrong, that damage has been done," Pinto says.
As part of the study, published Oct. 1 in the journal PLOS ONE, more than 3,000 people were given "Sniffin' Sticks," medically approved odor-dispensing devices that look like felt-tip markers.
"We test rose, leather, peppermint, fish and orange," Pinto says. "We uncap the Sniffin' Sticks, and let them sniff."
Most participants -- 45.5 percent correctly identified all the scents and another 29 percent scored four out of five -- were classified as "normosmic." About 20 percent got two or three right. The remaining 3.5 percent qualified as "hyposmic," by identifying just one (2.4 percent) or none (1.1 percent).
Thirty-nine percent of those study subjects who failed died within the next five years. Only 19 percent of those with moderate smell loss, and just 10 percent of those with healthy senses of smell died during the same period.
"Their work is excellent. It makes a lot of sense," says Dr. Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, which had nothing to do with this study but has long been an advocate of doctors including smell tests in routine physicals. "They test hearing and vision but not the sense of smell."
Unlike many medical tests, the smell evaluation is cheap and simple. "It's a 3-minute, five-item test," Pinto says. "It's very quick and very easy."
Olfactory dysfunction has been associated with diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but this study links it to "the ultimate poor health outcome: death within five years," says Pinto, who was joined in the research by Kristen E. Wroblewski, David W. Kern, and L. Philip Schumm, all from the University of Chicago.
A loss of smell affects the sense of taste, which could encourage people to put more salt on their food, or even eat spoiled foods.
"Perceived sense of smell is different than the actual sense of smell," says Pinto, who says people might unknowingly compensate for the diminished sense of smell by using more cologne or perfume. "Just as people who have hearing loss turn up the volume on the TV, people will turn up the smell."
Someone without a sense of smell could also miss the warning signs of immediate danger -- such as a gas leak or something burning.
Just as other tests can give patients warnings about their overall health, the smell test can do that very well, Pinto says.
So, in our busy, modern lives, take time to stop and smell the roses. And if you can't smell the roses, Pinto says that you should tell your doctor.