The brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease (AD) develop slowly over many years before the onset of dementia. Biomarkers for AD that allow its detection during this clinically silent phase will be hugely important when disease-modifying treatments that halt or slow its progression become available. Early detection, leading to early treatment, may in some cases avert dementia. Biomarkers aid our understanding of the presymptomatic stages of the disease and enable the identification of individuals with early disease who, by participating in clinical trials of investigational treatments with disease-modifying potential, contribute unique and vital information necessary to evaluate novel therapies. Most currently available AD biomarkers are expensive and not widely available and there are major efforts underway to find cheaper, simpler options. The olfactory system is affected by AD and the results from simple and inexpensive tests of the sense of smell, especially when paired with other information, can help identify individuals early in the disease. We review recent literature relevant to the use of simple olfactory tests, including some novel approaches, as aids to the early detection of AD. We consider their possible role in the design and conduct of clinical trials and suggest how in the future, when more effective treatments become available, they might be integrated into screening programs for early AD detection.