Old person smell is real: Why does it matter?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Science confirms there is such a thing as 'old people smell'.
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Getting older brings about changes, but according to new research, unpleasant body odor isn’t one of them. According to scientists from the Monell Chemical Sense Center, there isn’t anything foul about the smell of an old person, contrary to popular belief, but odor can indeed give clues to a person’s age and there is such a thing as 'old person smell'.

Recognizing the scent of age means humans, like animals, can obtain social signals from body odor.

Elderly body odor neutral, compared to younger folks

According to the study’s senior author, Johan Lundström who is a sensory neuroscientist at Monell, “Similar to other animals, humans can extract signals from body odors that allow us to identify biological age, avoid sick individuals, pick a suitable partner, and distinguish kin from non-kin.”

When Lundström and his team tested how study participants perceived body odor from 3 age groups, they discovered it’s indeed possible to discern an older person by smell.

But much to the researcher’s surprise, evaluators described smells from an old person as less unpleasant, compared to the odor of 20 to 30-year olds and middle-age adults.

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For the study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers gathered body odors by having donors sleep in their shirts for 5 nights with unscented underarm pads inserted. The researchers cut the underarm pads in small pieces and put them in a jar and then asked the evaluators to take a whiff.

They found humans can tell another person’s age by body odor, just as animals can, but they didn’t find anything negative or intense about the smell.

Lundström said in media release, “This was surprising given the popular conception of old age odor as disagreeable. However, it is possible that other sources of body odors, such as skin or breath, may have different qualities.”

The study shows there is validity to ‘old person smell’ that is recognized in various cultures; especially Japan that has a special word – kareishū – but it isn’t unpleasant. The myth that the scent of age is unpleasant may be debunked. The study shows smell provides humans with sensory clues that can help discern age, sickness and other social information, just like animals.

Citation:

Mitro S, Gordon AR, Olsson MJ, Lundström JN (2012)
"The Smell of Age: Perception and Discrimination of Body Odors of Different Ages.
PLoS ONE 7(5): e38110. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038110

Image credit: Morguefile

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