You know how old people smell kind of, well, old?
A study published last week suggests that while the elderly may indeed smell different from younger people, their body odor is neither particularly strong nor particularly unpleasant.
Research conducted at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia had 41 young people, ages 20 to 30, smell body-odor samples collected from 41 donors in three age groups: “young” (20-30 years old), “middle-age” (45-55) and “old-age” (75-95). They were asked to rate the scents’ intensity and pleasantness, determine which ones came from old donors, and estimate the age of each sample’s donor.
The samples were gathered by affixing pads to the underarms of T-shirts worn by donors for five nights. Steps were taken to keep other smells, such as those from soap, detergent, cologne, medications and spicy foods, from skewing the scents. Each pad was combined with samples from the same age group and put in a jar. The various jars were then used for sniff tests.
The young sniffers correctly identified the age groups from which the sample sets were taken. But they were better able to guess the ages of the people from the old group than from the younger group. And while they found that the scents from the older folks were distinctive, they didn’t find them unpleasant or intense. By contrast, they did find many of the samples from young and middle-aged people intense and/or unpleasant. Also, while they could judge the sex of the donors in the young and middle-aged groups, they weren’t able to distinguish male from female among the old donors.
The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, notes that people’s skin biology and chemistry change as they age, which may account for changes in the way their skin smells. The study’s authors also point to animal studies showing that creatures other than humans discern age differences among other members of their species on the basis of their scent. The authors say that body odor might offer animals important clues about potential mates’ worthiness for reproduction.