Nuts and nut butters contain a ton of health benefits.
One of the most popular food items in America, Peanut butter, in particular, is a good source of protein and heart-healthy fats.
However, peanut butter’s health benefits may surpass those of consumption.
According to researchers from the University of Florida (UF), a spoonful of peanut butter may be a useful tool in helping to diagnose Early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
A sensational thought: can a common nut better help diagnose the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease?
In an attempt to find an inexpensive and non-invasive way to detect early-stage Alzheimer’s and track its progress, a peanut butter smell test was created.
Let’s look at how one of the most popular nut butters in America might be able to help catch early-stage Alzheimer’s Dementia and cognitive decline.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
A progressive neurodegenerative disease, Alzheimer’s is a condition that severely affects brain health and neurological function.
It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States (1).
As we age, there is a higher likelihood of memory problems but not to this degree.
An Alzheimer’s Diagnosis is associated with damage to important brain cells.
This damage results in a loss of cognitive skills, memory, and critical thinking skills that lead to dementia.
This disease is most commonly associated with older adults and seniors, with the average age of diagnosis at 65 years and older as with most other kinds of memory disorders.
However, early-onset can occur anywhere between 30 and 65 years of age however, this is rare.
Alzheimer’s Disease It is one of the most common causes of dementia among older adults, with Parkinson’s disease coming in second (1).
Those who suffer from Alzheimer’s often experience poor quality of life.
Those afflicted with the condition must rely on caregivers or family for support or be admitted to a memory care facility for dementia support.
Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s is not a treatable condition, and it will eventually result in death.
There is currently no cure for the diagnosis but there are some medications that can help to prolong the progression of the disease.
Some studies have supported the use of antidepressants for those with Alzheimer’s disease however, research is mixed.
Those who show signs of mild cognitive decline should speak to their doctor to determine their risks.
How Is Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosed?
Signs of Alzheimer’s cannot be determined with a brain scan, blood test, or physical exam.
Other types of memory disorders and forms of dementia can produce similar symptoms therefore, it’s difficult to obtain a specific diagnosis.
Finding a specialist is an important part of the evaluation process.
An assessment is required from a Neurologist, a specialist in conditions of the brain, or a Geriatrician, a specialist in caring for older adults.
The first things clinicians will do to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease is rule out other conditions and review medical history.
Lab tests and brain scans, such as a CT scan, MRI, or PET scan, are the next diagnostic tool (2).
There are many characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease that can only be seen when examining brain tissue after death.
These characteristics include plaques and tau tangles.
Plaques, known as amyloid plaques, are when naturally occurring amyloid proteins in the brain tissue clump together and form plaques between neurons.
This causes a disruption in their function (3).
Tau tangles are when tau proteins in brain cells collect inside neurons and stick together.
This form threads that tangle and block the neuron’s ability to communicate with other neurons (3).
For those who are living, the presence of Amyloid plaques, tau protein, and phosphorylated tau in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) are the gold-standard biomarkers for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (4).
A spinal tap is required to obtain the CSF for testing.
This is an invasive and painful procedure.
Another diagnostic procedure is the beta-amyloid PET scan.
This is a type of imaging that can detect the buildup of beta-amyloid in plaques and in the blood vessels supplying the brain (4).
This type of testing is minimally invasive compared to spinal fluid tests however, it is costly.
A newer advanced diagnostic biomarker that is minimally invasive and inexpensive compared to the gold standard is the plasma pTau181 test.
The plasma pTau181 test is a new blood-testing technique for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease that can help distinguish it from other dementias such as tauopathies and frontotemporal lobar degeneration (5).
Plasma pTau181 is increased in those with Alzheimer’s disease and can be detected with a simple blood test and may even be more accurate than spinal fluid tests and PET scans.
This biomarker test can determine early-onset Alzheimer’s disease a lot sooner than an Amyloid PET scan because these biomarkers increase before tangles can be detected (5).
Not only is this cheaper and easier, but it is also a lot less painful than the previous gold standard since it only requires blood samples however, research remains ongoing.
Common Dementia Symptoms
Alzheimer’s disease usually manifests in older adults with symptoms of memory problems and early signs of dementia.
Although symptoms vary from person to person, memory problems are often among the first signs.
Other symptoms can include language problems, confusion, and unpredictable behavior.
They might have trouble finding the right words, have a vision or spatial challenges, or impaired judgment (1).
One of the earliest clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is olfactory nerve dysfunction (6).
Because of this, sense of smell has been studied as a potential marker for Alzheimer’s disease severity and progression.
Findings of a small pilot study at the University of Florida Department of Neuroscience were believed to prove this theory.
Peanut Butter Smell Test
Jennifer Stamps, a graduate student at UF McKnight Brain Institute Center and her colleague Kenneth Heilman a distinguished professor of Neurology began researching this idea when Stamps shadowed Heilman’s clinic.
When realizing patients in Heilman’s clinic were not being tested for their sense of smell, one of the first things affected with cognitive decline, they decided to take action.
The research took place in the laboratory of Linda Bartoshuk, a professor of the Department of Community Dentistry and behavior science at UF who specializes in taste.
Researchers determined the peanut butter smell test was able to signal out smell impairments in those with probable Alzheimer’s when conducted on a mix of individuals.
Those who were tested included 19 patients who likely had early-stage Alzheimer’s, 24 patients with mild cognitive impairment, and 26 patients with other causes of dementia (7).
So What Is a Peanut Butter Smell Test?
To conduct the test, researchers asked patients to close their eyes, mouth, and one nostril.
14 grams of Peanut butter, equal to one tablespoon, was used as a pure odorant to evaluate their smell sensitivity.
This is because our olfactory nerve, also known as our first cranial nerve (CN1), can sense the odor of peanut butter easily, making it perfect to evaluate a patient’s smell system.
An open peanut butter container was waved a short distance in front of each patient, moving closer until they could smell the odor.
They used a metric ruler to measure the distance the peanut butter needed to be moved in centimeters.
Once the distance was measured by the ruler, they then performed the smell test with the second nostril after a 90-second delay.
Those patients with probable Alzheimer’s disease showed a dramatic difference between detecting odor between the left and right nostril.
They required the peanut butter to be moved closer an average of 10 centimeters, specifically to their left nostril and not the right nostril (7).
So, What Might Have Caused the Left Nostril Impairment?
A lot of research on Alzheimer-related brain shrinkage shows the starting point on the left side of the brain.
In this portion of the brain, it is found the temporal lobe degenerates first and can result in a failing sense of smell on the left side.
This could be a groundbreaking early diagnosis method of Alzheimer’s dementia in older adults.
Although initial clinical testing appeared promising, the Alzheimer’s peanut butter test has yet to be duplicated successfully.
Unfortunately, the smell is also the first sense to decrease in healthy seniors as a normal part of aging.
Along with other diseases that can cause a dysfunction in odor detection, its effectiveness in clinical practice is still being determined.
It’s also argued that low smell test scores are not an early warning of Alzheimer’s disease but is instead a sign of later stages (6).
Ongoing Research Needed
Because the study conducted by the researchers at the University of Florida was a small sample size, further research is warranted to prove this theory.
The following year, in 2014, the University of Pennsylvania attempted to replicate the results (2).
Unfortunately, of the 15 patients with Alzheimer’s showed no difference in their ability to smell peanut butter with their left nostril versus their right nostril (8).
Clinicians remain searching for ways to help distinguish an accurate test for these types of neurological problems.
More clinical trials need to be conducted to determine different ways to detect early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
A Need for An Early Alzheimers Test
Current Alzheimer’s testing tools are poorly accessible which makes diagnosis and further research a challenge.
A spinal tap or beta-amyloid PET scans are currently the most accurate early-stage diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s disease.
Unfortunately, these elaborate tests are expensive, not widely available, and can be very painful for the patient.
Inexpensive testing could help to diagnose patients and update them and their caregivers or family members about their disease status.
Getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in the early stages can help to delay future memory loss.
It is also imperative in helping to find better treatment options for the development of Alzheimer’s disease, such as potential medications that could help with delaying cognitive impairment.
What is The SAGE Test?
In an attempt to find early detection methods for more treatment options, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center developed the SAGE test.
The Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination (SAGE) is a paper test that evaluates your thinking abilities, problem-solving and other aspects of cognition and brain function.
It was designed to help doctors understand how the brain is functioning and is a helpful screening tool for mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
MCI can sometimes be a sign that can help with the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
This test is offered for free at their facility and is practiced worldwide.
You can also download test varieties online, with four different versions of cognitive assessments to choose from.
Other cognitive assessments that can be used include online assessments that can be completed at home such as the CPCOG screening tool for dementia.
The General Practitioner Assessment of Cognition (CPCOG), the Memory Impairment Screen, and the Mini-COG are 3 screening tools recommended by the Alzheimer’s Association.
Dementia Care Tips
For those who suffer from dementia, whether it’s Alzheimer’s dementia or as a result of other forms of cognitive decline, quality of life decreases as cognitive skills decrease.
This can be a challenge for caregivers.
For those who are in the early stages and maintain their cognitive function, it’s important to make arrangements to protect yourself and your finances, such as assigning power of attorney.
Another important thing to consider is getting help for symptoms to improve quality of life, such as enrolling in mild memory programs or enrolling at a memory clinic.
Lastly, make new memories with your loved one while you can.
For those looking to help find treatment options for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, you can donate to the Alzheimer’s association to accelerate Alzheimer’s research and help find a cure.
- “What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?” National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-alzheimers-disease.
- “Learn How Alzheimer’s Is Diagnosed.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 19 Apr. 2019, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/in-depth/alzheimers/art-20048075.
- “What Happens to the Brain in Alzheimer’s Disease?” National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-happens-brain-alzheimers-disease.
- Sharma, Neeti, and Anshika Nikita Singh. “Exploring Biomarkers for Alzheimer’s Disease.” Journal of clinical and diagnostic research : JCDR vol. 10,7 (2016): KE01-6. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2016/18828.8166
- C, Cicognola, et al. “Plasma AΒ Test Wins Approval-Are P-Tau Tests Far behind?” ALZFORUM, 24 Nov. 2020, www.alzforum.org/news/research-news/plasma-av-test-wins-approval-are-p-tau-tests-far-behind.
- Zou, Yong-Ming et al. “Olfactory dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease.” Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment vol. 12 869-75. 15 Apr. 2016, doi:10.2147/NDT.S104886
- Stamps, Jennifer J et al. “A brief olfactory test for Alzheimer’s disease.” Journal of the neurological sciences vol. 333,1-2 (2013): 19-24. doi:10.1016/j.jns.2013.06.033
- Doty, Richard L et al. “The lateralized smell test for detecting Alzheimer’s disease: failure to replicate.” Journal of the neurological sciences vol. 340,1-2 (2014): 170-3. doi:10.1016/j.jns.2014.03.022