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

Next entry »
soundoff (232 Responses)
  1. DbsfZisse

    viagra pharmacy india buy viagra online pharmacy viagra 100 mg tablet price

    November 27, 2020 at 02:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. official site electrician

    naturally like your web site however you need to check the spelling on several of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling issues and I in finding it very troublesome to inform the reality on the other hand I will definitely come again again.


    November 27, 2020 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. FqfEncox

    research paper lessons why writing is important essay essay about myself for college

    November 28, 2020 at 07:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. find more electrician near me free estimate

    I precisely wanted to say thanks again. I am not sure the things that I could possibly have created in the absence of these tricks discussed by you regarding this question. It actually was an absolute fearsome problem in my view, nevertheless coming across a new skilled manner you processed that forced me to weep over fulfillment. Now i am grateful for the advice and in addition trust you know what a great job that you're accomplishing instructing people via your web page. I know that you have never got to know all of us.


    November 28, 2020 at 19:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. check this site out electrician contractor

    I think this is among the most significant information for me. And i'm glad reading your article. But want to remark on few general things, The web site style is great, the articles is really great : D. Good job, cheers


    November 29, 2020 at 16:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. KwgdMile

    construction dissertations research paper books buy essays online

    November 29, 2020 at 20:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. site electrician

    Would you be keen on exchanging hyperlinks?


    November 30, 2020 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. FnsbEncox

    help in assignment writing youtube essay writing best college essay writers

    December 1, 2020 at 02:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. JgscCrulk

    essay writing 350 words on love academic research paper pay for writing articles

    December 1, 2020 at 15:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. visite site san diego electrician

    Have you ever considered creating an ebook or guest authoring on other sites? I have a blog based on the same subjects you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my visitors would appreciate your work. If you're even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.


    December 1, 2020 at 16:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. FgsZisse

    thesis for an essay essay writing draft richard marius writing a thesis

    December 1, 2020 at 18:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. FsfEncox

    assignment notebooks where can i find someone to write my college paper doing your literature review

    December 1, 2020 at 22:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. FtghEncox

    homework help tvo essays writing legitimate essay writing service

    December 2, 2020 at 07:36 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4

Leave a Reply to Jayne


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

Next entry »
About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.