Peanut butter is probably not your first thought as a game changer in Alzheimer's research but the future of early detection could be as easy as a trip to your kitchen cabinets.

Alzheimer's disease impacts more than 100,000 people in Tennessee, WBIR reports. In fact, the state has the sixth highest death rate in America.

The Tennessee Alzheimer's Association predicts that 140,000 people in the state will be diagnosed by 2025 and this year alone five million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed as well.

But now, a diagnosis may be possible using a spoonful of a common house-hold spread.

To better understand this story, you need to meet Bea, 90, a retired nurse from Knox County. She can tell you crystal clear stories from decades past.

"When I was growing up, I wanted to join the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). But my momma said, 'You're not doing that. That's a no-no.'"

Her memories of things more recent, like the day she moved out of her home, are getting more blurry.

"He said it was a beautiful house why do you want to sell it? I said, 'Because there's no one to take care of me.'"

Bea is showing early signs of Alzheimer's. She was diagnosed by the most common method, called the mini-mental test.

"It's intrusive. It's embarrassing. It's a list of questions, for example, who's the president? What day is it? It's being able to draw an old style clock and read the time off it.," said Mahon Fritts, executive director at ALPS, a non-profit adult day service in Hamblen County.

"With family members present, it gets even worse because they try and answer for mom and dad and they get embarrassed for their loved one," Fritts said.

Fritts is not alone when it comes to his frustrations with the test. Tired of the complicated way the diagnosis is determined, a neurologist at the University of Florida found a way to catch Alzheimer's early through a person's sense of smell.

Sense of smell is often the first sense to go in cognitive decline, even before memory loss.

"We didn't have a quick neurological test for it," said Jennifer Stamps, a graduate student from the school who is leading research on the test., "We needed something very quick."

Stamps said peanut was chosen carefully. The scent is not a smell lost during typical aging. It also has hundreds of complex molecules that trigger nerves leading to the sensory system.

So what exactly does a peanut butter smell test consist of?

  1. Each person begins with closed eyes and mouth and they even close up one of their nostrils.
  2. Someone opens a jar of peanut butter with a ruler under the person's nose, coming closer until he or she can smell the peanut butter.
  3. The person with the ruler measures this distance.
  4. The process is repeated using the other nostril after a 90-second break

Bea's caretaker agreed to let Bea demonstrate how the peanut butter test can work. With her eyes and mouth closed, Bea plugs one nostril. We started at the bottom of a ruler and slowly moved up.

"Right there. Okay. Now I can smell it," Bea said.

Bea's left nostril had a harder time detecting the peanut butter, because that's where Alzheimer's starts. Her right nostril smelled it more easily because her disease hasn't spread to the right side of her brain yet. The difference in this smell is unique to the disease.

Some doctors and caretakers in the field of Alzheimer's are praising the study as a potential breakthrough for the disease.

"If this can become a proven test that everyone uses then that's amazing," said Fritts. "It's not intrusive; it doesn't mean going in front of a doctor or a bunch of strangers to tell you what's wrong with mom and dad or your loved one. It can be done in the home. Even someone who is further along in the stages but has not been diagnosed, you can make a game out of it."

Others dispute the study saying a complicated disease cannot be determined by something this simple.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania tried it and did not see a difference between the two nostrils. Many are calling for more research and time.

At this point, the test can only be used to confirm an Alzheimer's diagnosis, and is not a way to diagnose the disease. However, caretakers said researchers have to keep looking for a less aggressive way of detecting a very aggressive disease.

"Everybody is afraid of it. Everybody is afraid of being embarrassed in public. We need the stigma to go away, and we need more studies like this to find better ways of diagnosing and then medicating these issues." Fritts states. "We have to explore everything."

Especially in the early stages, when detection is most crucial to prevent memory damage.

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