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Study - simple test may predict Alzheimer risk

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A simple test asking people to identify various odors may help doctors determine which patients with mild cognitive trouble will develop Alzheimer's disease, researchers said on Monday.

Doctors at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York gave a 15 to 20 minute test to 90 men and women with an average age of 67 who had minor memory and cognitive problems.

Using a "scratch and sniff" test, participants were exposed to 40 different smells such as menthol, peanuts and soap and asked to identify each odor from four alternatives.

Researchers tracked the patients for an average of 20 months and found that none of the 30 people who scored well on the test developed Alzheimer's.

But 19 of 47 people who had difficulty identifying the smells did develop Alzheimer's. And 16 of the 19 had reported that they had a good sense of smell at the time of the test.

The findings suggest that the inability to recognize smells, combined with a lack of awareness of impaired odor perception, may be a sign of impending Alzheimer's, researchers said.

Dr. D.P. Devanand, the study's lead researcher, said the results make sense because scientists have known that smell pathways were damaged in Alzheimer's patients. But he said the findings needed to be confirmed by further study.

While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, early notice of the disease could help patients gain treatment for symptoms sooner and help in other ways, Devanand said in an interview.

"If people know, they can plan their lives in advance, and sometimes family members would want to know if they have a familial risk," he said. "And if there were better medications available, (early diagnosis) would be even more beneficial."

The National Institutes of Health funded the research. The findings were published in the September issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

About 12 million people, including four million Americans, have Alzheimer's disease, a fatal disorder that is the leading cause of dementia in the elderly.

Some physicians have used brain imaging tests to predict Alzheimer's risk, but those tests are not conclusive and are much more expensive than the smell test, Devanand said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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