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What Causes The Distinct Old Person Scent?

Posted by: Dr. Maria Dublin, on: Tuesday, 01 April 2014


Although it is a bit challenging to describe, you would know, and be supernaturally sure of it, when an old person has just sat on that taxi or subway seat you presently occupy. It is not too pungent but it is very distinct. The scent is a bit musty, woody, and medicinal - all at the same time. There is indeed a phenomenon regarded as old person smell existing at your granny’s house, and it is very common in nursing homes. For the Japanese, they call it kareishuu.


While younger generations, generally, think of it as obnoxious, old person smell is actually regarded by science as less intense and less unpleasant compared to the body odour of younger generations. Johan Lundström, in his 2012 study The Smell of Age: Perception and Discrimination of Body Odours of Different Ages proved this point. The study had 41 healthy participants, and 21 of which are women with a mean age of 25 years. Body odour samples were collected from three age groups: ‘Young’ (20–30 years old), ‘Middle-age’ (45–55 years old), or ‘Old-age’ (75–95 years old). Sixteen individuals, eight of whom are women, donated body odour labelled as Young and Middle-age. Twelve individuals, six of whom are women, donated body odour labelled as ‘Old-age’. Individuals who are actively smoking, those taking psychopharmacological substances, systemic medication and hormonal contraceptives, and those experiencing trauma which leads to unconsciousness - are excluded from the study.


In order to ensure that all participants are not suffering from olfactory dysfunction, Lundström conducted Odour Identification Tests. Participants were then required to perform three tasks, namely: perceptual ratings task, forced-choice discrimination task, and age-labelling task. In the end, participants were able to more accurately distinguish the old person scent from younger age groups. Surprisingly and contrary to ordinary notion, old person smell was rated as less unpleasant than the body odour from younger donors, especially middle-aged men.


This phenomenon was explained by Haze, Gozu, Nakamura, Kohno, Sawano, Ohta, and Yamazaki, in their 2001 study. They concluded that the distinct body odour was brought out by the increase in odour compound. This increase in compounds is not because of multiplication of body odours but is caused by the breaking down into many pieces of unsaturated fatty acids. The increase in fatty acids, however, was not discussed by the study.


Yes, no matter how complicated science may have explained it, the scent at your grandparent’s house is a normal phenomenon which may be caused by enclosed housings, cleaning conundrums, sensory decline, and medicinal smell, among others. We try to discuss these causes below.


• Enclosed Units

If you would notice, most houses owned by old-aged people are enclosed. Most old people often feel cold, and this is why opening windows is not part of their daily routine. This traps the body odours inside the house, preventing fresh air to enter the dwelling. In the long run, the old people odour remains and sticks in the insides of the house.


• Cleaning Conundrums

Older adults are recommended by their doctors to prevent bending down or doing too many activities. This means foregoing cleaning for them. So, they may be sweeping the floors but they cannot reach all the corners of their houses. Moreover, this difficulty in moving around prevents them from completely cleaning their bodies during bath and perfectly removing stains and odours during laundry.


• Sensory Decline

The weakening of olfactory nerves on the noses of older adults is also one of the causes why their odour remains. Because they cannot anymore smell their surroundings, they thought that their laundry already smells like flowers or that their homes already smell like citrus after a few sweeps. This is also explaining why older people prefer stronger perfumes.


• Medicinal Smell

Most adults take medicines and supplements on top of the dental dilemma they are undergoing through. Most of these medicines change the chemical composition of the body, causing it to emit a different kind of odour. Moreover, older adults have a fondness of ointments. These, too, affect the scent they produce.

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