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Scientists confirm existence of 'old person smell'
May 30th, 2012
05:00 PM ET

Scientists confirm existence of 'old person smell'

You know that smell in retirement homes and your grandmother's house? Mothballs and stale air may not be entirely to blame.

In a new study, researchers have confirmed for the first time that older people have a recognizable body odor that can't be fully explained by grooming, diet, or other environmental quirks. In fact, the study found, this "old person smell" is distinctive enough that young adults can more often than not identify an old person by body odor alone.

This isn't totally surprising. Scientists have known for years that a broad range of animal species-including mice, deer, otters, rabbits, and monkeys-undergo body-odor changes in adulthood, which may help the animals select suitable mating partners.

Humans have found better ways of screening potential mates, but like other animals, we may have once used age-related signals gathered from body odor to choose partners, avoid sick people, or distinguish kin from non-kin, says Johan Lundström, Ph.D., the lead author of the study.

Health.com: Why do I have body odor?

Lundström, a senior neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research institute in Philadelphia, began wondering about the effects of age on body odor when he noticed that the so-called old person smell seems to be consistent across cultures.

As a child in Sweden, he often accompanied his mother to the nursing home where she worked, and he remembered a unique odor throughout the building. "I never smelled it again until years later, when I came to the U.S. and gave a talk at a retirement home," he says. "As soon as I walked through the door, that exact same scent hit me."

Later, when he described his experience to a Japanese colleague, he learned there's even a word for this smell in Japanese: kareishū.

Lundström and his colleagues designed their study, which appears this week in the journal PLoS ONE, to explore whether there's a biological basis for the smell.

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First, they instructed 41 men and women who fell into one of three age groups (20 to 30, 45 to 55, and 75 to 90) to sleep for five consecutive nights in a t-shirt containing special underarm pads. Then, after cutting the pads into pieces and placing them in glass jars, the researchers asked a separate group of 41 young adults to smell two samples back-to-back and determine which came from an older person.

The young adults had trouble distinguishing between the young and middle-age groups, but they were much more successful at singling out samples from the oldest group. In addition-contrary to the stereotype of the old person smell-the volunteers generally rated the samples from the oldest group as being less intense and less unpleasant than those from the youngergroups.

The telltale odor couldn't be chalked up to the older participants' lifestyle or environment. The researchers asked all of the people who provided underarm pads to avoid scented soaps and shampoos, alcohol, tobacco, and certain foods and spices-all of which can affect sweat and body odor. (They also excluded any pads that were obviously contaminated by soap, smoke, perfume, or other odors.)

Although some of the participants in the older group were taking medications for chronic conditions such as high cholesterol and hypertension, none of these prescription drugs are known to alter body odor.

Health.com: How to get rid of annoying body problems

The root cause of the old person smell is still a mystery, but the study notes that long-term changes to the skin glands may be involved. Lundström suspects it also may be related to an accelerated rate of cell decay. "As cells die at a faster pace, they might give off a different odor that is unique to people with old age," he says.

Another possibility is that the scent indicates an undiagnosed illness. Although the study participants were all outwardly healthy, some may have had underlying ailments that come naturally with oldage, Lundström says.

If this last explanation pans out, body odor could ultimately prove useful in identifying certain diseases, perhaps even before existing tests can, Lundström says.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011


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soundoff (190 Responses)
  1. Kana

    All "dollar" stores have the same chemical smell too. Kind of like a mix of disinfectant and pesticide.

    May 31, 2012 at 07:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Dan

    Maybe that's why we lose our sense of smell? When one goes up the other goes down!

    May 31, 2012 at 08:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Marilynne

    I worked with 'gerians' (old folks) for several years as a nursing supervisor.
    Post death there is always an odd odour, but, pre death, and in the months before that, my staff would often comment that Mr. or Mrs. so in so had 'the smell' ... not sure how to explain it, but, I guess perhaps moldy or musty would do.
    Another 'clincher' that death might be imminent, and this happened many times, was the change in position of their ear lobe! I would be informed that someones ear lobe was 'that way', on examination, yep .. it had slightly elongated and turned back with a crease in it .. 9 times out of ten, the patient expired within 2 days to a week.
    Ahh .. the subtleties of the human body.

    May 31, 2012 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • messenger

      Very interesting! I guess just like a new baby smells "fresh," it makes sense that a person close to death would have a smell like you describe. Odd, but I never noticed this smell on my own parents before they died. I wonder if I just got used to it or because there were more important things going on with their care, I never noticed it.

      May 31, 2012 at 09:12 | Report abuse |
    • Brian P

      THis is interesting. I wonder if it is somehow related to hydration? Please explain in more detail what the findings are?

      May 31, 2012 at 09:15 | Report abuse |
    • N

      They aren't findings. They're anecdotes. And the plural of anecdote is NOT data.

      June 7, 2012 at 19:31 | Report abuse |
  4. ash

    Anyone can smell. If you are active, eat balanced and well, sleep well, you will not smell, you just might even smell good. None of my 4 grand parents ever smelled, they all died active, healthy people in their 80s and 90s.

    May 31, 2012 at 08:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • New Gawker

      There's also a family old people smell. My friends never can't smell anything at their parents house but if I went over I smelled it.

      May 31, 2012 at 09:10 | Report abuse |
    • messenger

      @New Gawker: I think that can be true of families even if they have no elderly members.

      May 31, 2012 at 09:13 | Report abuse |
  5. New Gawker

    There's also the puberty smell, young kids smell awful because they're spraying out pheromones all over the place.

    May 31, 2012 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • stateschool

      6th grade classrooms smell like hockey pads.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:22 | Report abuse |
  6. SPRINGSGRANNY

    I know the smell and I always thought that older people didn't wash their clothes as often and the shedding skin would make them smell. Especially on jackets and shirts. I think they try to get 4 or 5 wearings out of their clothes before washing. Just a theory.

    May 31, 2012 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. SPRINGSGRANNY

    Is there something wrong with you that you can't stay on the subject????

    May 31, 2012 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • stateschool

      My friend's neighbor has a pet rabbit.

      May 31, 2012 at 10:23 | Report abuse |
  8. andrew

    it is their organs decomposing, their skin decomposing, etc. Accelerated decay.

    May 31, 2012 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. GettingOlder

    A thorough daily hygiene is a must to cut down the smell.

    May 31, 2012 at 09:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Forist

    When I was a younger man, in my late teens as I recall, I worked in a nursing home. For the longest time when I went to work I noticed a strange odor that no one could explain – not even a hygenist that was hired to determine its origin. It wasn't an unpleasant odor but, it lingered in the entrance way and halls. Depending on how long one was in the building it left one in a state of olfactory fatigue. Now, I wonder perhaps it had been there all the time and we simply became a custom to it.

    May 31, 2012 at 11:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. feline123

    This is interesting. Is there a socio-economic cut off for the old age smell? Do those old, rich dudes who marry young females also stink or does their money make them fragrant?

    May 31, 2012 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. 65yearold

    Here's the answer:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2-Nonenal

    May 31, 2012 at 19:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Gerard314

    I'm not immune to some kind of old-age biased but I had always assumed the smell came from a combination of 3 things: Lack of hygiene including washing clothes on a regular basis; urinary incontinence/ adult diapers related accidents; and lack of interest or ability in opening windows and/or turning on air conditioning to air the place out.

    May 31, 2012 at 23:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. feline123

    The worst stench is that of a new baby and a new nursing mother. A baby can be bathed, slathered in Johnson's soap, powder and lotion and it helps a little until the child erupts again. The house will stink of diapers, sour milk, clothing to be washed and bedding to be washed and changed.

    June 2, 2012 at 18:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. moosedude

    Give the old people 20-30 minutes... they will forget what we are talking about and they will complain about something else :-)

    June 14, 2012 at 16:36 | Report abuse | Reply
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    July 9, 2012 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. GoCubs

    Before my Mom went in for surgery on a secondary brain tumor stemming from stage 4 lung cancer, I had hugged her and commented on who good she smelled. After they removed the tumor she had the "old person smell" immediately! She is otherwise extremely healthy and takes no different medication other than seizure medicine at this point. The smell showed up before radiation, before chemo.... And hasn't left.

    August 25, 2012 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
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    July 13, 2013 at 07:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Marge

    An older friend visited me a while ago, and I hadn't seen her for a while. I was repulsed by the smell. Although I felt bad about it, there it is. The rooms smelled that she spent time in, and the sofa even reeked for several days. I wound up having to burn incense because it was so repugnant. I couldn't figure out why - I know she showered, and she showered here as well. It's something that comes out of the skin, I guess. I can't even describe it. It was almost like a soured version of something. I became interested in the subject after that. I never really smelled that on anyone else.

    July 23, 2013 at 21:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Pat

    Enough said the smell is there ! NOW how do we get rid of it ???

    August 10, 2013 at 05:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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  22. railroadguy

    The problem with the test is that the pads should have been applied to the genital area not the armpits. The old people smell is a smell due to the hormonal changes as we get older. This is why old men and old women smell so differently. You would guess ahh the old men have too much testosterone and that's why the smell. or too much estrogen on the old ladies. It's totally the opposite! as we get older men will have an increase in estrogen and women an increase in testosterone. this is why old ladies sometimes have a mustache and old men start growing breasts! it's this imbalance of hormones that causes the odd smells!

    October 26, 2013 at 21:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Brandon

    I'm guessing it's due to illness. I'm 31 years old and generally healthy, but I've been sick for the last week and if one of the young adults were to smell me right now they'd think I was 80.

    February 6, 2014 at 14:16 | Report abuse | Reply
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