Can Age Be Defined By Smell?


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As I was contemplating what to write next, a friend suggested that I ask this question: why do people have distinctly different smells? I'm not talking about stinky body odor, but something else. Have you ever gone to a friend's house and immediately recognized the smell? Well, I searched this on Google and found a fairly interesting article about smell, and it had to do not with people in general, but instead a specific age group. Have you ever walked into a nursing home and noticed a distinctly different smell? Not unpleasant, just different? As it turns out, there has been a study that has tested this phenomenon (who knew?). 
Now as a disclaimer: I'm not at all trying to be offensive in any which way. I have great respect for the elderly. I simply ran into some articles on the internet that I found pretty interesting. 
The first article I ran into was this one. The flashy title is what caught my eye ("Old Person Smell Really Exists, Scientists Say").

The article starts off by saying that both human and animal body odors are rich in chemical components that can transmit useful information around the body, and many animals (such as mice, rabbits, owl, and monkeys), are known to have the chemical makeup of their body odor change as they age. 

Apparently, research done at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia confirmed that elderly people do have a recognizable scent, so distinct in fact that people can identify them by body odor alone. For the study, researchers collected body odor samples from 44 volunteers of three different age groups: young, middle-aged, and old.  The one group was from 20 to 30 years old, the middle-aged group 45 to 55 years old, and the old group was 75 to 95 years old. Everyone included in the experiment was given the same odorless soap to use, and were told not to drink, smoke, or eat certain foods that may potentially have an effect on their body odor. Next, 41 "young" participants were given two jars in nine combinations to rate the scents, and were asked to rate the intensity and pleasantness of each odor. They were also asked either to identify which sample came from the older odor donor, or to estimate the age group to which each sample belonged. The results? The participants of the experiment were able to single out the odors of the oldest group quite easily, but had trouble distinguishing the young and middle-aged. 

Another interesting result is that despite the uniqueness of the odor from the older group-and contrary to general belief-the odor isn't actually that bad. The participants said that the elderly odor was less intense and less unpleasant than the body odor from the younger donors. Participants rated middle-aged men's odor as the worst-smelling and most intense, and the elderly men's odor as the less intense and not as bad-smelling as the middle-aged men. And for the women, middle-aged women's odors were rated as more pleasant and less intense than those of elderly women. 

So what causes this distinct smell? The study didn't provide reasoning behind why older people smell different, so I decided to do some more investigation. I found this article, which references a study that found that compared with people aged 25 to 40, people over the age of 40 have higher levels of a fragrant organic compound known as 2-noneal in their sweat and on their skin. This could possibly be attributed to why elderly people smell different, but is it the only reason? There are plenty of other theories out there. According to the article, one scientist says that it could be a biological way to distinguish the sick and elderly from the healthy and young. The older we get, the more natural cell decay we have. Could this maybe have helped our ancestors find suitable mates?

Could it also simply have to do with the lack of smell in the elderly? According to this article, by the time a person is 70, they will have lost 75 percent of their smell. Could it be that elderly people simply don't have as strong a sense of smell as younger people do, so they don't realize if they may smell slightly off? 
 
I also couldn't help but think that maybe the odor of the elderly has to also do with their behavior and surroundings. Many elderly people live within closed quarters, such as nursing homes, or if they live at home are more fragile and thus unable to venture out as much as we do. Many elderly people tend to lose temperature regulation, and thus have the need to live in closed quarters, which can be breeding grounds for mold and bacteria. Could this be the cause of the smell? Further, I wonder whether or not the elderly people in the study I earlier mentioned came from nursing homes, and if that could potentially have an effect on the study.

There could be other variables that have to do with the elderly being more fragile and less able than when they were younger. Less ability to clean, less ability to do laundry, the list could go on.   

In conclusion: yes, elderly people do have a distinct smell. There are an endless amount of potential explanations for this phenomenon, and I'm sure I've only scratched the surface. What do you think? Have you experienced this phenomenon while around elderly people? Let me know what you guys think!





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