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Inexpensive 'Smell Test' Could Help Diagnose Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases

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Diagnosing neurological illness is a lengthy, complex, and expensive process. But one surprising test might soon help to speed things up. A series of recent studies has found that checking patients' sense of smell could help identify Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

Doctors have known about the link between olfactory (smell-related) dysfunction and neurological diseases for a long time now. Their patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease often report losing some or all of their ability to smell.

Davangere Devanand is a neurology and psychiatry expert at Columbia University who has spent years investigating this poorly understood connection. In his latest paper on the subject, published last year in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Devanand found ample evidence to support doctors' and patients' stories. In many adults, he wrote, anosmia could be seen as a reliable predictor of Alzheimer's disease.

"It's important, not just because it's novel and interesting and simple but because the evidence is strong," Devanand told Scientific American. "In the past, most neurologists thought, 'Maybe there's something there statistically in a paper, but it's a bit flaky.'"

A paper published this month in the journal Lancet Neurology came to a similar conclusion, proposing a single, as-yet-undetermined root cause of anosmia in both illnesses.

Paper author Richard Doty is also the creator of the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test (UPSIT), which asks patients to scratch and sniff 40 different odors. The results are instantaneous, and at $26.95, it's a far cheaper starting point than brain scans.

Neurologist G. Webster Ross of the Veterans Affairs Pacific Islands Health Care System says the test can be a strong negative predictor of neurological issues as well. "If a person scores very well on a smell identification test, then you can be pretty sure they're not going to have Parkinson's, at least within the next four years," he told Scientific American.

It's important to keep in mind that neurological disease is far from the only condition associated with anosmia. Our sense of smell naturally begins to grow duller as we age, and the most common cause of temporary or permanent anosmia is none other than the common cold. So if you can't smell your favorite perfume today, don't panic just yet.

[h/t Scientific American]

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Live Smarter
Not Sure About Your Tap Water? Here's How to Test for Contaminants
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In the wake of Flint, Michigan's water crisis, you may have begun to wonder: Is my tap water safe? How would I know? To put your mind at ease—or just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—you can find out exactly what's in your municipal water pretty easily, as Popular Science reports. Depending on where you live, it might even be free.

A new water quality test called Tap Score, launched on Kickstarter in June 2017, helps you test for the most common household water contaminants for $120 per kit. You just need to take a few samples, mail them to the lab, and you'll get the results back in 10 days, telling you about lead levels, copper and cadmium content, arsenic, and other common hazardous materials that can make their way into water via pipes or wells. If you're mostly worried about lead, you can get a $40 test that only tells you about the lead and copper content of your water.

In New York State, a free lead-testing program will send you a test kit on request that allows you to send off samples of your water to a state-certified lab for processing, no purchase required. A few weeks later, you'll get a letter with the results, telling you what kind of lead levels were found in your water. This option is great if you live in New York, but if your state doesn't offer free testing (or only offers it to specific locations, like schools), there are other budget-friendly ways to test, too.

While mailing samples of your water off to a certified lab is the most accurate way to test your water, you can do it entirely at home with inexpensive strip tests that will only set you back $10 to $15. These tests aren't as sensitive as lab versions, and they don't test for as many contaminants, but they can tell you roughly whether you should be concerned about high levels of toxic metals like lead. The strip tests will only give you positive or negative readings, though, whereas the EPA and other official agencies test for the concentration of contaminants (the parts-per-billion) to determine the safety of a water source. If you're truly concerned with what's in your water, you should probably stick to sending your samples off to a professional, since you'll get a more detailed report of the results from a lab than from a colored strip.

In the future, there will likely be an even quicker way to test for lead and other metals—one that hooks up to your smartphone. Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge by inventing Tethys, a faster lead-testing device than what's currently on the market. With Tethys, instead of waiting for a lab, you can get results instantly. It's not commercially available yet, though, so for now, we'll have to stick with mail-away options.

[h/t Popular Science]

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