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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.

Health.com: The best anti-aging secrets

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 (206 Responses)
  1. just me

    For those criticizing the old folks, remember that one day YOU will smell like that too

    May 30, 2012 at 21:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tr1Xen

      Only if we're lucky!

      May 30, 2012 at 22:01 | Report abuse |
    • Hadenuffyet

      eventually , they'll smell worse...

      May 30, 2012 at 22:09 | Report abuse |
    • ROCKWOOD

      NOT ME!!!! I'm getting me some AXE body spray and stuff.

      May 30, 2012 at 22:09 | Report abuse |
    • chicago7

      But didn't the article state that the young adults identified the "old person" odor by saying it was less intense and less offensive than body odor from younger age groups?

      May 30, 2012 at 23:11 | Report abuse |
    • youngperson

      My grandparents on a farm never had old person smell, while my grandmother in a nursing home did. I think that is the place and what they eat that contribute to that smell.

      May 31, 2012 at 01:30 | Report abuse |
    • Clarice

      This is absolutely true. I know I smell, and I am 63. That's why I shower every day, use powder, deodorant, and a little perfume. I've not had complaints, but I absolutely know that as I am aging, I smell!

      May 31, 2012 at 02:14 | Report abuse |
    • messenger

      @Clarice: "Old person smell" to me is more chemical-like than stinky and is not offensive to me. Now bad underarm smell, BO, or the smell of people who don't shower regularly, those stink!

      May 31, 2012 at 09:21 | Report abuse |
    • Emm Yo

      Not if you eat properly. I am 65 and smell fresh. Do not even require deodorant for there is NO body odour. Dairy (the worst) meat alcohol and junk foods make a person stink. Husband is 7 years younger and refuses to detoxify himself and quit dairy at least. He smells like an old man. It is so bad I moved into my own bedroom – which smells lovely by the way.

      October 17, 2015 at 09:05 | Report abuse |
  2. Hadenuffyet

    I've known that zinc supplements can negate body odors...just sayin.

    May 30, 2012 at 22:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. sybaris

    Really?

    Lundstrom must be old too cause if you know how to use Google there is plenty of information available on this "old people smell" and what causes it. April 2001 issue of the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Shinichiro Haze, et al.

    May 30, 2012 at 22:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jim

    well so what everybody still has to use toilet paper, why is this a scientific study??? young diapered babies smell like poop, adolescent teens smell of hamburgers and junk food, you can always smell rich people they attract friends like bees to flowers, cancer patients smell of the disease, people who do not bathe smell, so why this study wasting $$$$ probably from a GRANT ?? big deal. If a dead body is not cremated the corpse in the coffin also smells. Why is this published news?

    May 30, 2012 at 22:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Marian

      Because, ignoramus, it has medical implications. Don't you want medical science to advance? Did you read the whole article?

      May 30, 2012 at 22:23 | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Jim you come across ignorant and uneducated – but then to people like you its all about the grants and money even when it is unlikely you even went to college at all.

      May 30, 2012 at 23:38 | Report abuse |
    • Asav

      As a chemist, I agree this is a pathetic study. First of all, this is common knowledge. Secondly, the study was not done by analytical chemists. If it was, then they would likely have found the molecules which cause this smell.

      May 30, 2012 at 23:56 | Report abuse |
    • LArry

      @Marian and Mark Jim is right , this is a waste not only because its common knowledge but no it doesnt have medical implications because its BEEN DONE BEFORE and it didnt identify what causes the smell. Seems to me like your the ignorant ones now maybe before you criticize you should fact check. Hey JIm my baby daughter smells like pee and puke not poop.

      May 31, 2012 at 01:15 | Report abuse |
  5. Mike

    When I was a kid I hated hugging my grandmother because she smelled like a pig. It still gives me the creeps when I think about it.

    May 30, 2012 at 22:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hogarth

      I'm curious how you would know what a pig smells like.

      May 31, 2012 at 00:07 | Report abuse |
  6. Anne

    I have noticed this on older people. Not only that but when my husband was battlling cancer I noticed the smell, and he was 76 yrs. old. It's something we all get as we age, and I don't think there is anyway to avoid it. Other than splashing cologne, after-shave, etc. on you real good. Things wear out on our bodies as we age.

    May 30, 2012 at 22:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Can't Wait

    Now they just need to bottle it and sell it in department stores!

    May 30, 2012 at 22:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. uponthisrock

    There is no doubt about an odor in some older people. Me? When I get there at least I am aware of it and that is the only
    remedy that I may be able to do something about it. I can tell you this...you will be there sooner than you like.

    May 30, 2012 at 22:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Butch

    Scientists say the Human body regenerates itself(forming a whole new body) about 7 or 8 times during a normal lifetime. What if us humans had to shed our outer layer of skin just like the snake?? That one in our pump house does it every year on a rusty nail. We save them up. We may discover a cure for something, like old people oder.

    May 30, 2012 at 22:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Kevin

    My dad is 88 and does not smell like an old person (and I don't say that to prop him up, just an interesting data point)

    May 30, 2012 at 22:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. ThePreacherTheTeacher

    So I'm almost 45, and my 12 year-old kid tells me I smell like an old person. I guess that's a bad sign?

    May 30, 2012 at 23:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. rmtaks

    It's nature's way of warning you that you are about to hear boring stories.

    May 30, 2012 at 23:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. billmosby

    Well, after reading this obvious falsehood, "Humans have found better ways of screening potential mates", in the story, I think it calls into question the whole thing. I can't think of too many things that people do worse than find good mates, lol.

    May 30, 2012 at 23:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. billmosby

    Also, I think this old folks' smell is probably better than the ammonia smell you sometimes detect around people.

    May 30, 2012 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. edeveryday

    This is possibly very true. Scientists have also concluded that blacks have a very distinct body odor of their own also. It has been described as being "musky" to the nasal senses. The Chinaman's body odor, also distinct, has been descirbed as smelling somewhat like "kung pao chicken". Kind of a heavy "soy sauce" smell. The East Indian of course smells like a curry factory. Muslims in general, known for not having taken a bath for a couple of years, generally smell like dog excrement. The diverse body odors in today's society are quite distinct and offer an interesting alternative to the standard B.O. that you would normally find in, let's say, the local gym in a predominantly upscale white neighborhood.

    May 30, 2012 at 23:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ThePreacherTheTeacher

      Well that explains why white supremacists smell like Treblinka right after the liberation

      May 30, 2012 at 23:15 | Report abuse |
    • AnnieR.

      to edeveryday: your comments are disgusting.....

      May 31, 2012 at 01:15 | Report abuse |
    • JomoDaMusicMan

      I see u conveniently didn't mention that White People smells like a Wet Dog to people of other Races

      May 31, 2012 at 07:02 | Report abuse |
  16. PuzzledInPeoria

    The same smell in nursing homes in Sweden and the U.S.? Really? Really? We call it excrement here. I don't know what they call it in Sweden. Seriously, many of those residents wear adult diapers and some have fecal incontinence. The pungent odor of a nursing home is hardly a scientific mystery.

    May 30, 2012 at 23:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kate

      I thought the same thing!

      May 31, 2012 at 06:22 | Report abuse |
  17. larkstan

    Really, PuzzledinPeoria? Do you imagine the scientists and most other people can't discern between excrement and "old people's smell"?

    May 30, 2012 at 23:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. not_too_sure

    My parents and grandparents bathed every day and never had an "old folks smell." My mom is 73 and has no distinctive odor about her.

    May 30, 2012 at 23:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • moosedude

      Your just used to it... move out of the basement...

      June 14, 2012 at 16:44 | Report abuse |
  19. Lila

    This study has everyone wearing the same clothes to bed for 5 days. The clothes must have smelled pretty ripe! I remember when I was a kid what old people smelled like. Now I also notice the smell of kids, teens and 20 somethings now that I'm older. They have a strong sweaty smell, something I didn't notice when I was that age. It probably makes a difference not only with the age of the people wearing the clothes but also the age of the people smelling them. Makes sense. My husband, who is the same age, smells awesome to me. Men who are too young or too old don't smell right to me. I guess it's nature way of making sure we hook up with appropriate people.

    May 30, 2012 at 23:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. miketofdal

    someone actually funded this study. disgusting. is it no wonder that America is in such a decline?

    May 30, 2012 at 23:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. snookers

    Ah, I remember when coming home from elementary school and while going up the stairs and getting excited when smelling that Grampa and Grandma were upstairs visiting. Not an offensive smell at all. My siblings could also always identify that smell when opening the front door. And since they often brought a small present, it was a happy smell to us kids.

    May 31, 2012 at 00:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Absynthe

    Perhaps we can smell cancer, and other ailments?

    It's also what you eat over the past 6 weeks. Old people seem to stop eating healthy – so, perhaps we're smelling that they're NOT eating well.

    I just don't like racists – I'm several different nationalities, and I can't imagine arguing with myself!

    May 31, 2012 at 00:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Michael

    I see old people at the gym and they don't seem to smell. I think its just the old people who are dying a slow death, decrepit, eating foods that aren't fresh because they can't smell their food, not showering regularly. Its not so much "old people" smell as much as it is "bad health" smell.

    May 31, 2012 at 00:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. mahdeealoo

    I believe the basis for scent is hormone driven or at least led by the non production of hormones in full force as they diminish as we age. I have noticed my "scent" changing through the years, even from my mouth. We are attracted to each other by pheromones that are barely recognizable as an actual smell. But that "smell" leads us to friends, lovers, and partners. Our bodies know what we are doing, we have such subtle cues and smells that dictate a large percentage of our behavior that we may not even be aware of them at while they are functioning. Instincts are based upon more than just a gut feeling...all of our senses come into play, especially smell, to guide us throughout our lives.

    May 31, 2012 at 00:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. christiem8

    we go regularly to a convelascent home. The smell is called PEE..... Other than that, there is no real smell.
    We bring one of our friends to church every Sunday. She has never smelled like Pee before. She was sitting next to me and I smelled that distinct odor. But guess what??? I was MY DAUGHTER who had wet the bed and didn't tell us. The entire service, I thought it was our dear friend, when in fact it was our 11 year old sweetie who didn't take a bath after peeing. 🙂

    May 31, 2012 at 00:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. 123elle

    This article and the study behind it seem to have no real purpose other than to stigmatize the elderly for something they cannot help if it really exists. It reinforces prejudices which people probably formed when they encountered elderly relatives who could not care for themselves meticulously. The stigma is reinforced by the powerful fear and desire that aging people have of old age, and their wish to distance themselves from the elderly. Don't forget, we are all aging. I think it is a fond wish that our inferior senses of smell are somehow sharp in a subliminal way - we somehow "smell" women in their most fertile times via pheremones; we "smell" sickness" we "smell" old age. I have seen no proof here, and I think this whole study is slanted to yield the results that its principals wanted in the first place.

    May 31, 2012 at 00:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Paulie916

    New cars have a definite 'smell' too. You stink!

    May 31, 2012 at 00:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. S. Brown

    It's simply the smell of decrepitude. You can avoid it by staying healthy, well into advanced years.

    May 31, 2012 at 00:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • P.J.

      Wow! Nice spelling on decrepitude. I'm impressed.

      May 31, 2012 at 07:59 | Report abuse |
  29. Bill

    This research may help advance future genetically engineered transhuman designer B.O. know-how. In a couple generations, grandma will smell like a pine tree air freshener.

    May 31, 2012 at 00:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. acajunthatsagun

    It's the pee in the Depends... get over it.

    May 31, 2012 at 00:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. MarcNJ

    Hey Grandpa, you smell, but it's ok, scientists have figured out that it's just because you're old. Well that and you drink too much.

    May 31, 2012 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. He He

    This story stinks !

    May 31, 2012 at 00:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Shocking

    Yes, Dr. Leroy- subject no.17, the 70 year old, is oddly without the detected elder scent as charted by the computerized sensor.
    She's also quite attractive with quite a figure. Will it be breaking protocol in the study if I asked her out for a cup of tea?

    May 31, 2012 at 00:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Fifi

    I used to like my grandfather's "old man " smell. He was the only grandparent I had, and I loved him. His smell was part of him.

    It's odd that the study used underarm pads, since elderly people don't sweat there much. I think of old-person smell as exuding from the pores all over. Perhaps it's something similar to the ketones the body sheds when someone drastically restricts calories. Old people may be shedding body proteins (or...) and shedding the resulting compounds through the skin.

    May 31, 2012 at 01:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fifi

      (should read: old people may be breaking down body proteins...)

      May 31, 2012 at 01:24 | Report abuse |
  35. sugar

    Dogs can smell cancer so it makes sense for diseases to have specific odors. Humans love to forget we were once as complex as wilder beasts. 😉

    May 31, 2012 at 01:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. John

    "Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many."

    May 31, 2012 at 01:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Petros

    From birth to death, people smell. It is a billion dollar industry to cover it up. Not just old people.
    Attention anyone under 25... after the 25 year you will be begin your journey on the "Old" Road. Each year it will be more apparent. You know it has started when you are first irritated by someone a few years younger or their music perhaps..
    point is everyone is going to get old...when you see a senior citizen, that will happen to you one day in your own way of course.
    Smell ya later..

    May 31, 2012 at 01:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. gh

    black people have a smell too, but its just lotion because of the "ashy" thing

    May 31, 2012 at 02:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Gregory Dittman

    My guess it's bacteria related. Bacteria has long been associated with various types of body oder including very bad breath. As the body changes, the food source for bacteria changes. It could also be why people can pick up the scent of foreigners. What the people are actually smelling is a different species of bacteria.

    May 31, 2012 at 02:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Alex

    Do we really need scientists to tell us old people smelll?

    May 31, 2012 at 03:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. M.K.

    It took science to figure that out? Old bread smells, old meat smells, old cereal smells, old fish smells, old dirt smells. Science can do wonderful things, but they cannot use a little commom sense.

    May 31, 2012 at 03:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Cynical4cc

    Dont believe everything you read… Or watch on tv. Especially reality tv. The thing about mythbusters is they are completely biased. They dont use accurate information in their tests. They tweak the testing info or myth to fit the outcome that they want portrayed. If they want a certain result, they tweak the test and info so that the outcome is that of which they desired. I cannot stand that show for that very reason. Its like cheating.

    May 31, 2012 at 03:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cap'n Rita

      Have you ACTUALLY watched the show? They try the experiment exactly the way the myth is posed. If it looks busted THEN they try it their way in order to get the result claimed by the myth. Maybe your negativity makes you a bit biased. Or maybe the science is just too much for you.

      May 31, 2012 at 06:54 | Report abuse |
  43. Smell it

    The one who felt it, smelt it.

    May 31, 2012 at 04:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Smell it

    There was a time where people were at least taught to be respectful of others. Now almost everyday there is a story about how unless you're totally healthy, young, and rich, you are offending someone. People that are overweight will cost you healthcare dollars. If you smell, you might have a disease, and cost the teabaggers their precious money. If you are overweight, you're taking my space on an airline, and God forbid if you have kids, they may interupt your email on facebook.

    The more I hear about how much a group of people is costing others in society, the more it seems we haven't learned anything from Germany in the 1940s. SAD SAD SAD.

    May 31, 2012 at 04:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Flyingarchitect

    More good news to looke forward to. Sheesh.

    May 31, 2012 at 06:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Shack

    this explains why elderly women marinate themselves in perfume
    it all makes perfect sense if you think about it, babies have that new baby smell so why wouldn't old people smell like old people? mustard

    May 31, 2012 at 06:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Cotton

    There is a product called Grandma's Lye Soap. Hunters use it because it removes all human odor. There is no need for anyone to smell bed.

    May 31, 2012 at 07:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Howie

    I would like to see more on the study. I have worked with the elderly population for 25 years in their homes and Assist Living Facilities. The only time you note a smell on an elderly person is when they do not bath regularly. Many times they will only bathe once or twice a week which is a hygiene issue. In this study did they measure how many times a week the person bathed and if they did bathe were they able to complete this task physically? Many elders have arthritic hands and cannot hold a wash clothe or are just too tired to stand and bathe. I find this study a bit absurd.

    May 31, 2012 at 07:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. george bedula

    noticed I was starting to smell like my Dad in my forties. twenty plus years later I don't notice me that much, but will pick up on alcohol, tobacco, pot, and most especially on older women, cheap perfume. fine perfume, applied sparingly, to young women, will cause me to inquire who the manufacturer is, and often, when doing so, I'll notice the young one in my zone, taking a sniff,
    and occasionally rubbing me on the upper arm with open palm, as if taking a whiff home for future consideration to determine what type of dirty old man i may be. this may be an LA phenomenon. working on my own study, let you know the results when I retire from the chase.

    May 31, 2012 at 07:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Hot Carl

    The "smell" is usually attributed to to pre-death decomposition. The body starts to decompose long before physical death. What you're smelling is the early stages of adipocere.

    May 31, 2012 at 07:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DB5

      You are right on! I have believed that for a long time. I knew an old lady that smelled strange and predicted her death by a week.

      May 31, 2012 at 08:50 | Report abuse |
    • Needs more research.

      I love this theory. Pre-death decomposition! My wife says I smell like this at least once a day.

      May 31, 2012 at 08:51 | Report abuse |
    • oldguy

      Don't worry, you aren't dying. It is just your wife's wishful thinking.

      May 31, 2012 at 09:25 | Report abuse |
    • Louisiana Man

      I theorize the 'old people smells' are medications emitting thru the pores. Most elderly are on several/numerous medications..
      and these Rx are powerful meds that enhance their longevity..

      and the source of the odor in nursing homes is a congregation of humans of similar ages and health problems.

      May 31, 2012 at 09:28 | Report abuse |
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