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 (1,125 Responses)
  1. mike


    May 30, 2012 at 18:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • PETE


      May 30, 2012 at 19:10 | Report abuse |
    • wizard2399

      It's a mixture of urine and disenfectant.

      May 30, 2012 at 19:56 | Report abuse |
    • hannah cwik

      Old people smell like death.

      May 30, 2012 at 20:24 | Report abuse |
    • laurab68

      my ex at 43 had developed what can only be described "old unwashed man" smell. Any soft surface which came into contact with his head, left that odour behind. It was enough to make me want to vomit. No matter how many times a week I changed his pillowcase, washed the pillow, washed the sheets and the bedspread, washed his sweaters, made him shower on a daily basis, it was everywhere. It wasn't the main reason I left, but I couldn't be in the same house as that smell. Now when my kids come home from his house, it's in their hair because they slept on his bed.....welcome to male menopause otherwise known as andropause.
      Don't judge me for that....you didn't have to live through it.

      May 30, 2012 at 21:25 | Report abuse |
    • bottomofbarrell

      laurab is a bitter witch, she should have to wear a witch hat in public, and only fly her broom around on Sundays. PS, she smells like fish from here.

      May 30, 2012 at 21:55 | Report abuse |
    • Hadenuffyet

      laurab68..so much for ' for better or for worse" eh...

      May 30, 2012 at 22:06 | Report abuse |
    • sybaris

      laurab68, you sound like a bitter hag. Probably your ex smelled better than you.

      May 30, 2012 at 22:37 | Report abuse |
  2. Jon

    Finally! Can't believe it took this long for a study like this!

    May 30, 2012 at 18:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. demarcus

    Smelling under arm pads from old people? Being unemployed doesn't sound that bad now.

    May 30, 2012 at 18:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. popeye1128

    "Lundström suspects it also may be related to an accelerated rate of cell decay."

    Getting old used to be celebrated. Now we're just decaying quicker. Oh well, enjoy it while you can!

    May 30, 2012 at 18:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. 4th wright

    Great. Something else I have to look forward to.

    May 30, 2012 at 18:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Liz in Seattle

      If you're lucky, 4th Wright.

      May 30, 2012 at 19:01 | Report abuse |



    May 30, 2012 at 18:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. jdmazz

    I thought I saw an episode of myth busters or some other show where they proved this was not true. So which is it?

    May 30, 2012 at 18:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • steve

      Let's see – an extensive controlled scientific experiement by neuroscientists or a 10 minute test by a group of TV actors. Tough call, but I have to go with Mythbusters.

      May 30, 2012 at 20:39 | Report abuse |
  8. olfactory

    At last. Urine, feces, dribble and sweat.....Hi gramp!

    May 30, 2012 at 18:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Dr.Watch

    CNN author, you don't say.

    May 30, 2012 at 18:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. bikepro

    I just hope they aren't spending my taxes on something as absurd as this.

    May 30, 2012 at 18:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. steve

    Must be Obama grant money at work here.

    May 30, 2012 at 18:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Leucadia Bob


    May 30, 2012 at 18:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. gross

    Yes, that is what Hugh Hefner smeels like!!
    Nice man but his collogne could not cover his old man smell.

    May 30, 2012 at 19:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • bottomofbarrell

      too bad his cologne couldn't cover up your speeeeeling.

      May 30, 2012 at 21:56 | Report abuse |
  14. The Flamingo Kid

    I have always noticed that old people smell nasty. They always smell like urine and feces to me. I just chalked it up to bad hygiene.

    May 30, 2012 at 19:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jim

    Wow! Talk about carrying Obama's water CNN!!! They've already said you don't need to get mammograms and more recently that you shouldn't get routine prostate exams. Next will come that these old smelly people shouldn't be here anymore. What a bunch of wackos. Truly scary stuff and being propogated by good ole CNN. Disgusting.

    May 30, 2012 at 19:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kojo

      I hope you are joking! Because, you don’t make any sense at all.

      May 30, 2012 at 19:19 | Report abuse |
    • oakstave

      No I think he's serious. Don't say anything else to make him paranoid. He's about to leave Earth as it is.

      May 30, 2012 at 19:31 | Report abuse |
    • Tune A Fish

      Wow, way to read waaaaay too much into a story, mista!

      May 30, 2012 at 21:13 | Report abuse |
    • JamalTheGreat

      So, it's Obama's fault old people smell like 3 day old limberger cheese?

      May 30, 2012 at 21:18 | Report abuse |
  16. geneticroadkill

    I don't agree! I have an 85 year old mother who smells fresh as a daisy every day; I believe due to her good grooming habits (her clothes are always clean and washed, she bathes daily, her house is aired out, etc.). The odor from the elderly is purely based upon wearing stale clothing and/or not washing their hair as often as needed and living in closed in spaces with no fresh air. My dear dad (RIP) lived in a tiny apartment and never wanted to windows opened; he washed every day but his clothes were not washed as often as needed and he had the smell of the elderly. It's hygiene. Soap, shampoo, and laundry detergent are our friends. 😎

    May 30, 2012 at 19:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • puckles

      SOMEONE did not pay any attention to the article.

      May 30, 2012 at 19:18 | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      It is so strange that you are smarter than the scientist that spent a lot of time studying this topic. You can just blow of evidence like it never existed. My, my – why didn't they just call you first?

      May 30, 2012 at 19:26 | Report abuse |
    • Carol

      My grandmother and my Dad were in their eighties when they passed on, also my mother-in-law was almost ninety. They never had an old-age odor. I did know some older people, neighbors, who did. I agree with geneticroadkill, it has to do with musty clothes, musty homes, etc. We seniors have enough ridiculous comments in our society without hanging the smelly people on us, too. If you took all the grooming products away from the younger people they wouldn't smell like flowers either, as they did with the elderly in this article. Now if we are talking about nursing homes and not retirement homes you will have very sick people and I would have to agree that the cells are possibly dying, and an odor may be apparent. In fact, I know that is true as I spent weeks on a cancer wing with my beloved daughter, and held many a hand before they died.

      May 30, 2012 at 19:43 | Report abuse |
    • BiteADick

      I disagree!!! Last time I banged your mother she smelled like cheese.

      May 30, 2012 at 20:36 | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Did you smell her "down there".

      May 30, 2012 at 21:11 | Report abuse |
  17. kojo

    They should have put the pads in the volunteers crotches....

    May 30, 2012 at 19:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. jake

    Could this article or this study be any more rude and condescending to Seniors??? Always remember, YOU too will get old one day, we all do, how we do it is more important than how we smell doing it...

    May 30, 2012 at 19:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Simmy

    A few years back I tried a new optical store for some glasses. I distinctly remember the optometrist because he was an elderly man, definitely I would say in his early to mid 80s! What I remember most about him is he had a very caring personality AND he smelled VERY VERY GOOD! A clean smell plus after shave or maybe cologne. As a matter of fact, he was the best smelling men I can remember. I was shocked too bc, see here I was assuming he wouldn't smell up to par. He sure proved me wrong. I said all this bc I think the elderly just get too tired sometime and maybe don't go to the extra trouble of washing real good, etc. It happened to my mom later on in her life and she was a nurse.

    May 30, 2012 at 19:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Toots McDonough

    "Scientists confirm existence of 'old person smell'" When I read that, I was sure it must be an Onion article.

    May 30, 2012 at 19:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. paganguy

    Smelling armpits. Did I see this on Saturday Night live?

    May 30, 2012 at 19:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. steve

    thanks for the info!!! Another waste of my time.

    May 30, 2012 at 19:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Jenna

    Uhh if your in a nursing home it's called pee .

    May 30, 2012 at 19:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • priscilla kelley

      I may smell - but I can spell! Your what is in a nursing home? I think that you meant you're (= you are).

      May 30, 2012 at 20:38 | Report abuse |
  24. Honker Bob

    Old people – Smell one today!

    May 30, 2012 at 20:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. mona

    Well everyone knows the poor residents at nuirsing homes are at the mercy of the workers . the only ones that smell nice probably can still do for themselves or got family/ paid help

    May 30, 2012 at 20:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. chemmajor

    I lean toward the undiagnosed illness possibility. Dogs have been trained to detect specific diseases; this study may be related to that process.

    May 30, 2012 at 20:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. sameeker

    Question – What is 40 feet long and smells like pee?

    Answer – The line dance at the old folks home.

    May 30, 2012 at 20:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • priscilla kelley

      You're so funny! Why don't you do comedy?

      May 30, 2012 at 20:39 | Report abuse |
    • BiteADick

      Stolen and posted to my Facebook page!

      May 30, 2012 at 20:41 | Report abuse |
    • BiteADick

      Brilliant! Stolen and posted to my Facebook page!

      May 30, 2012 at 20:44 | Report abuse |
  28. Nutso

    I guess it's what you snot-nosed snooty brats would have smelled like if your parents ignored you when you were babies. Face it, YOU don't pay any attention at all to old people. Feel sorry for you when you get there and no one pays attention to YOU.

    May 30, 2012 at 20:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Julie

    I dunno – most of the stinky people I've met are young – sweat, booze, stale perfume, coffee breath...
    I work with geriatrics and most of the funky odors associated with them are truly from poor hygiene. This isn't b/c they're slobs, it's b/c they often suffer infirmities that make bathing difficult – fear of slipping and falling, inability to get in and out of a tub or shower etc. Older people may also be less likely to take as many baths as young people do from cultural habit. Most young people shower daily even if they've not broken a sweat.
    Older people also may use body powder more to prevent chafing or make up for less fanatic bathing habits. (Fat people are prone to the same thing)
    Also, the article didn't say the "old people smell" was bad – just distinguishable. Unfortunately this kind of thing, scientific curiosity or not, may only add to the American cultural phobia of aging.
    People used to insist that blacks smelled funny too – but I'll bet no scientist would touch THAT with a 10-foot pole. But it's open season on geezers.
    Thanks Dr Whatsyerface – I move you be sentenced to 10,000 hours of community service to the elderly for this one.

    May 30, 2012 at 20:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • priscilla kelley

      Yours is a very intelligent posting. Thank you!

      May 30, 2012 at 20:44 | Report abuse |
    • NN

      The abstract of the results states "... body odors from the Old-age group were rated as less intense and less unpleasant than body odors originating from Young and Middle-age donors." So I suppose this can also mean the body odor of the young and middle aged *stink* in comparison to the 75-95 yo crowd. Something we don't need a formal scientific study to tell us, get real. The main result:humans are able to discriminate age based on body odor alone. This is not exactly Nobel material...I suspect the study was a fake and the story a plant, the real study is about the kind of comments it elicits and the kind of people it attracts, results to be published at a later date, and it will not be very flattering.

      May 30, 2012 at 22:08 | Report abuse |
  30. BiteADick

    Old ladies smell like funeral wreaths and poo.

    May 30, 2012 at 20:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Ummmm

    I am sorry I did not read this article because, well, you get it I'm sure, but, curious....PLEASE say it was a private university using private dollars to do this study. Who thinks to study eau de old people? Freaky really.

    May 30, 2012 at 20:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. priscilla kelley

    Did anyone notice that the article stated that the sniffers said that the pads from the elderly smelled LESS unpleasant than the others?

    May 30, 2012 at 20:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. BillyBeater

    This article smells.

    May 30, 2012 at 20:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. BiteADick

    Okay, so we know they reek. Now how do we get them to stop paying with checks?

    May 30, 2012 at 20:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mobetta

      When we're living on the public dole like you young whippersnappers and run out of cash, then maybe we'll start paying with credit cards and go broke with you, Bitester.

      May 30, 2012 at 21:07 | Report abuse |
    • JamalTheGreat

      Never mind the checks. How do we keep them from cornering strangers and telling stories about the Depression. Of course it's freaking depressing...you won't stop reliving it!

      May 30, 2012 at 21:21 | Report abuse |
    • messenger

      Sorry Jamal, but I love those old stories! Nothing like hearing about history from someone who lived through it!

      May 31, 2012 at 09:43 | Report abuse |
  35. Roscoe Chait

    Oh good, something else to worry about besides Armagedon.

    May 30, 2012 at 20:46 | Report abuse | Reply


    May 30, 2012 at 20:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BiteADick

      You didn't even have to wait until you were old and creaky to smell. Look at the overachiever!

      May 30, 2012 at 20:53 | Report abuse |
    • JesusHerbertChrist

      Most smelly people are lonely, I'd guess. Change those incontinence pants and hop in the ol' showeroo once a week, 'kay?

      May 30, 2012 at 21:29 | Report abuse |
  37. BiteADick

    Old people always whine about how much better it was when they were kids. And they stink while they're doing it.

    May 30, 2012 at 20:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. TracyTackett

    How do you get an old lady out of your house? Throw a prune down the driveway and yell Fetch!

    May 30, 2012 at 20:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mobetta

      Oh Tracy – that be tacky.

      May 30, 2012 at 21:05 | Report abuse |
  39. Marlou Ordelt

    My sister-in-law, who is now 69 yrs old has used a Jean Nate` spray cologne since forever, and to me smells like a nursing home. She always says she needs to "refresh" when we go out somewhere, but her "odor" if you will, makes me wheeze and cough. I hate Jean Nate` and wish she would use a light fragrance instead. I gave her colognes as gifts but she will never use them. Thats why she is a lonely woman and has to tough it out with male relationships. They don't like her odor either. EWWW.
    Get with it sis-in-law...

    May 30, 2012 at 21:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • beernpizzalover

      Jean Nate: They still make that? I haven't seen a commercial for that in over 30 years!
      Now, I'm showing my age...

      May 30, 2012 at 23:32 | Report abuse |
  40. dowdotica

    i thought i started smelling funny, thought it was my stinky teenage kids. huh, go figure!

    May 30, 2012 at 21:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. mobetta

    Speaking as a old far+, here I always thought that smell came from defective Depends....

    May 30, 2012 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Curmudgeon46

      Nah! Dust or decay.

      May 30, 2012 at 21:21 | Report abuse |
  42. Beth

    Listen up, you old f a r t s : It's not longer the Depression. Soap is cheap. Don't make me close down your local Country Buffet.

    May 30, 2012 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BiteADick

      Don't make us cancel the Early Bird Special at Denny's.

      May 30, 2012 at 21:06 | Report abuse |
  43. TracyTackett

    Well, it's after 8pm. All old people off the internet. Time for you to take your heart pills and commence chasing young people off your lawns.

    May 30, 2012 at 21:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • puckles

      I chase young people off my lawn and I'm young.

      May 30, 2012 at 21:23 | Report abuse |
  44. Curmudgeon46

    Slow news day, huh!

    May 30, 2012 at 21:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. JesusHerbertChrist

    I know they sell Buck Lure, but has anyone cornered the market on Old Lure? Just spray it on and blend in with the old people getting their discounts at the movies.

    May 30, 2012 at 21:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. MyBigJohnson

    Okay, so the odor mystery is solved. Now we just need to find out why they make those chewing motions when there's nothing in their mouths.

    May 30, 2012 at 21:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. soulcatcher

    This just in they've just discovered the sources of the smells: a mixture of Viagra, vasaline, KY and over the counter male enhancement drugs.

    May 30, 2012 at 21:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Linda K

    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 younger groups.

    So there!

    May 30, 2012 at 21:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Lynn

    I'll take an old person smell over a teenagers stinky feet any day! lol

    May 30, 2012 at 21:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • messenger

      LOL . . . agreed!

      May 31, 2012 at 09:46 | Report abuse |
  50. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Body odor can be a major issue with people of all ages, not just old age. I went to high school with a guy who smelled like ball sweat and I had to work for 6 years in the same small room with a guy who smelled like a wet dog. And I mean this guy's smell filled up the whole !@#$ room! I would've taken old people smell over that $h|+ any day.

    I recommend that our genetic scientists focus on curing our race of stench. PLEASE HURRY!

    May 30, 2012 at 21:47 | Report abuse | Reply
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