Eau D'age

By Catherine McNulty

June 15, 2015 5 min read

Perhaps you remember it from visits to your grandparents' house as a child: that sweetish musty odor that hid in every nook and cranny? It's the smell of old people. It's no secret that every person has a unique smell, and we get a lot of information through our noses. But do all old people really have a different smell, or is that urban legend?

Believe it or not, studies have been done worldwide to determine whether there is a smell that comes with aging. The results almost all point to yes: There is an old-person smell.

First, let's clear the air a bit. Saying there is an "old-person smell" doesn't mean it's an awful odor; it's just distinctive. We live in a society that is constantly at war with our own biology. Industries have risen out of the desire to mask or eliminate odors that have been deemed offensive but are natural. So maybe old people do have a smell that is different and distinct from those younger than them. That doesn't mean it's a bad thing.

In 2000, a group of Japanese scientists discovered that as people age, an odiferous chemical, 2-nonenal, found on the skin and in the sweat increases. It's rarely found in the under-40 set, but by the time a person hits their 70s, it's three times as prevalent as it is in 40-somethings. This chemical, which is described as having a grassy or greasy smell, mixed with other factors is probably the biggest contributor to what is considered old-person smell.

Swedish researcher Johan Lundstrom came to a similar conclusion in a recent study. He grew up visiting his mother at her job in a nursing home in Sweden. When he walked into an elder care facility in Philadelphia, he noticed the smell was the same as that which he remembered from those childhood visits. In his study, he had volunteers of different ages, ranging from 20 to 95, sleep for five nights in a row wearing T-shirts with pads sewn into the armpit area. The pads were then cut into pieces and kept in jars. A different group of volunteers was asked to smell the pads. Almost all could identify the pads from the volunteers who were 75 to 95 years old.

Humans are not unique in that their body chemistry changes as they age. It also happens in mice, rabbits and owls, as well as our closest genetic cousins, monkeys. While science has not given us a satisfactory answer as to why this is, these chemical changes are what add up to old-person smell.

But chemistry alone is not responsible for old-person smell. Other scientists have pointed out that as we age our bodies lose the ability to regulate body temperature as efficiently as when we are young. This can lead to feeling cold a lot of the time. Many older adults bundle up year-round and don't air out their homes, which compounds the musty, stale smell.

The sense of smell is more closely linked to memory than any other sense. If the idea of smelling like an old person bothers you, there are steps you can take to make sure Eau d'Age isn't what people remember about you.

First, bathe daily. This may seem obvious, but it's the best way to get rid of any unwanted body odor. And not only is the bathing important, but so is drying yourself thoroughly using clean towels.

Second, clean, clean, clean! Another obvious one, but sometimes habit can become the enemy of cleanliness. Maybe you have a favorite sweater you wear around the house and never think to throw in the laundry. Or perhaps your house is very neat, but it's been years since you've done a deep cleaning. Clothing, furniture and clutter all hold on to smells and pass them back to you.

Third, drink plenty of water. Staying well-hydrated helps with a number of ills, including body odor. The better hydrated you are the more diluted your bodily fluids will be, which means they'll be less potent, which means there will be less old-person smell.

Finally, don't make yourself crazy! This is a naturally occurring change that everyone goes through. So embrace the odor; you've earned it.

If it makes you feel any better, the sniffing volunteers from Lundstrom's study didn't mind the smell of aging. The group they rated as having the most unpleasant smell? Middle-aged men.

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