Take this test…your health could depend on it.

Can you smell the rose that’s under your nose? What about the odor of burning toast? Or the foul smell of spoiled food?

Just as it’s common to have fading vision or diminished hearing as you age, many people lose at least some of their ability to smell. In fact, about 25% of adults over the age of 53 have a reduced sense of smell, and the percentage rises to more than 60% in those age 80 and older.

An Early Alert

You’re probably well aware that a decreased sense of smell can affect appetite. People who can’t smell and/or taste their food tend to eat less and may suffer from weight loss or nutritional deficiencies. But you might not know that a diminished sense of smell could also be an early indicator of a serious health problem…

Surprising finding: In a ­recent study, people ranging from ages 57 to 85 who lost their ability to smell were more than three times more likely to die within five years than those with a normal sense of smell—the risk of dying was even higher than for individuals diagnosed with lung disease, heart failure or cancer.

This study didn’t uncover the exact link between smelling loss and earlier-than-expected deaths. But the risk for neurodegenerative diseases could be a factor. For example, people who eventually develop Parkinson’s or Alz­heimer’s disease may notice a diminished sense of smell long before they have neurological symptoms.

It’s also possible that cellular senescence, the age-related reduction in cell regeneration, affects the olfactory bulb or other parts of the olfactory system before it becomes apparent in other parts of the body.

Test Yourself

Even if you think your sense of smell is fine, some basic testing might show otherwise. In the study mentioned earlier, some individuals who thought they had a good sense of smell actually didn’t, while some people who thought they had a problem with their sense of smell actually did well on the smell tests.

How to test yourself…

The alcohol test. Hold an alcohol-swab packet near your belly button and open it up. If your sense of smell is perfect, you will detect the odor. If you can’t smell it, raise it higher until you can. Some people won’t detect the odor until it’s just a few inches from the nose—or not even then. You can do the same test with anything that’s strongly scented. The closer the item needs to be for you to smell it, the worse your sense of smell is.

• Compare yourself to others. Suspect that you have a problem if you’re the only one in the family who doesn’t notice the wonderful smell of brownies in the oven. Or if you say “Huh?” when your spouse mentions that the fireplace is smoking or that there’s a nasty smell in the refrigerator.

If you think you have a diminished sense of smell: Get evaluated by an otolaryngologist or a neurologist. He/she can determine if your impairment is due to aging or a more serious problem that may have a better outcome if it is detected early.

What You Can Do

So far, a reduced sense of smell can’t be restored.* What can help…

Practice smelling. German scientists report that it may be possible to improve your sense of smell by smelling more. Spend a few minutes every day sniffing a variety of scents—spices, perfumes, aromatic foods, etc. This approach hasn’t been proven, but it could be helpful for some people.

Eat a well-balanced diet and take a multivitamin, which will provide the necessary micronutrients that help slow aging of the olfactory system and promote regeneration.

If you have appetite loss due to a reduced sense of smell…

Kick up the seasoning. Food will not be very appealing if you can’t smell or taste it. To make your dishes as flavorful and aromatic as possible, use plenty of strong spices, such as pepper, garlic, cilantro, ginger, etc., in your cooking.

Focus on preparation and presentation. Chefs have a saying: “The eyes eat first.” Use brightly colored fruits and vegetables and other colorful ingredients, and add garnishes to your plate. Also, vary the textures of the foods you eat.

*Exception: If your loss of smell is due to nasal inflammation—from allergies, chronic sinusitis, etc.—intranasal steroid sprays and antihistamines may restore it.