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The Takeaway: Older Men And Women Smell Better

Ever had a grandparent or older relative whose house had a certain inexplicable smell? It might have just been “old people odor” — a new study found people 75 to 90 years old have a recognizable smell that can’t be explained fully by diet, environment or anything else. It was distinctive enough that younger participants could identify an older person by body odor alone–but not unpleasant, notes the Toronto Star.

“Our main aim was to find out if there is an old-people odor,” Johan Lundström, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and lead author of the study, said. In fact, there was — but contrary to the stereotype of older people smelling unpleasant, older men and women were rated less intense and less unpleasant smelling than middle-aged and younger counterparts.

“Out of context, the negative aspect of old people odor was gone,” said Lundström. “It’s a social stigma. Most things associated with old age have a negative connotation … Changing the label on the odor changes the perception.”

In the study (published in the current PloS One) 41 men and women who fell into one of three age groups (20 to 30, 45 to 55 and 75 to 90) slept for five nights in a t-shirt containing special underarm pads. The pads were then cut into pieces, placed in glass jars and (glad I wasn’t in this study) given to a different group of young adults to smell. The smell-testers had a hard time distinguishing between the young and middle-age groups, but much more success identifying samples from the oldest group.

Young and middle-aged men rated highest in body odor intensity and unpleasantness; young women had a ‘moderately intense’ but neutral smell; and middle-aged women had a moderately intense but relatively pleasant smell.

Why old people smell so neutral and less intense is part of a bigger project Lundström and colleagues are working on. “The older ones are the survivors, from an evolutionary perspective,” he told the Star. “It could be good genes. Or it could be general sickness signals, a sign of more ailments. We don’t know yet.”

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Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire/AP