What Peanut Butter Can Tell Us About Alzheimer’s Risk
Alzheimer’s rates have skyrocketed over the past decade or so. A form of dementia that leaves many unable to function independently or remember loved ones, this disease is a nightmare for patients as well as their care takers.
Although scientists know Alzheimer’s disease involves progressive brain cell failure, the reason why the cells fail still isn’t clear. While science continues to search for both a cause and a cure, the best we can do is learn about contributing risk factors and engage in brain-healthy habits that may aid prevention.
Since the greatest risk factor for the disease is increasing age, early detection is critical for mitigating symptoms and retaining independence as long as possible. As crazy as it sounds, recent research from the University of Florida suggests that peanut butter and a ruler might be the two most effective tools for early Alzheimer’s detection.
Why peanut butter? Because it smells so good, of course, and one’s sense of smell reveals a lot about how well the brain is working.
“The ability to smell is associated with the first cranial nerve and is often one of the first things affected in cognitive decline,” explains a press release about the study. “Because peanut butter is a ‘pure odorant,’ it is only detected by the olfactory nerve and is easy to access.”
The small pilot study that’s exploring the peanut butter possibility is the brain-child of Jennifer Stamps, a graduate student in the UF McKnight Brain Institute Center for Smell and Taste. During her clinical work with Dr. Kenneth Heilman, a neurology specialist, Stamps noticed that incoming patients were not tested for their sense of smell. So, with Heilman’s direction to create a smell test that was “quick and inexpensive,” she devised the peanut butter experiment:
…patients who were coming to the clinic for testing also sat down with a clinician, 14 grams of peanut butter — which equals about one tablespoon — and a metric ruler. The patient closed his or her eyes and mouth and blocked one nostril. The clinician opened the peanut butter container and held the ruler next to the open nostril while the patient breathed normally. The clinician then moved the peanut butter up the ruler one centimeter at a time during the patient’s exhale until the person could detect an odor. The distance was recorded and the procedure repeated on the other nostril after a 90-second delay.
The clinicians running the test did not know the patients’ diagnoses, which were not usually confirmed until weeks after the initial clinical testing.
Although the number of participants was very small, the results were surprising: Of the 24 patients tested who had mild cognitive impairment, which sometimes signals Alzheimer’s disease, about 10 patients showed a left nostril impairment and 14 patients did not. The researchers said more studies must be conducted to fully understand the implications.
“At the moment, we can use this test to confirm diagnosis,” Stamps said. “But we plan to study patients with mild cognitive impairment to see if this test might be used to predict which patients are going to get Alzheimer’s disease.”
In the meantime, the UF researchers say the “peanut butter” test could be used by clinics that don’t have access to the personnel or equipment to run other, more elaborate tests required for a specific diagnosis.
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