CBS Local — Your sense of smell may be the newest weapon in the ongoing battle to detect and treat Alzheimer’s disease. A new study says losing the ability to distinguish certain smells from one another may be a sign of the onset of Alzheimer’s.

The study looked at 274 people considered to be at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s because they each had a parent who was diagnosed with the condition. The researchers at McGill University in Montreal gave the volunteers multiple tests, including using scratch-and-sniff cards to examine their sense of smell.

According to the results, the patients with the highest risk of developing the disease had the greatest trouble identifying the various scents on the card.

“This is the first time that anyone has been able to show clearly that the loss of the ability to identify smells is correlated with biological markers indicating the advance of the disease,” Marie-Elyse Lafaille-Magnan, the study’s author and a student at McGill University said.

Scientists say the connection is significant because brain regions connected with memory and the sense of smell are typically affected by the disease in its early stages. In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, patients eventually lose the ability to eat, walk, or sit up under their own power.

“Despite all the research in the area, no effective treatment has yet been found for AD,” says Dr. John Breitner, the director for the Centre for Studies on Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease. He added that he hopes earlier detection will lead to more effective ways of lessening the disease’s symptoms.

“If we can delay the onset of symptoms by just five years, we should be able to reduce the prevalence and severity of these symptoms by more than 50 percent.”