Inflammation has been implicated in physical frailty, but its role in sensory impairment is unclear. Given that olfactory impairment predicts dementia and mortality, determining the role of the immune system in olfactory dysfunction would provide insights mechanisms of neurosensory decline. We analyzed data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, a representative sample of home-dwelling older US adults. Plasma levels of 18 cytokines were measured using standard protocols (Luminex xMAP). Olfactory function was assessed with validated tools (n-butanol sensitivity and odor identification, each via Sniffin’ Sticks). We tested the association between cytokine profiles and olfactory function using multivariate ordinal logistic regression, adjusting for age, gender, race/ethnicity, education level, cognitive function, smoking status, and comorbidity. Older adults with the IL-1Rahigh-IL-4low-IL-13low cytokine profile had worse n-butanol odor sensitivity (odds ratio [OR] = 1.61, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.19–2.17) and worse odor identification (OR = 1.42, 95% CI 1.11–1.80). Proinflammatory, Th1, or Th2 cytokine profiles were not associated with olfactory function. Moreover, accounting for physical frailty did not alter the main findings. In conclusion, we identified a plasma cytokine signature—IL-1Rahigh-IL-4low-IL-13low—that is associated with olfactory dysfunction in older US adults. These data implicate systemic inflammation in age-related olfactory dysfunction and support a role for immune mechanisms in this process, a concept that warrants additional scrutiny.

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