Do I Smell Old?

When I was a teenager, I worried sometimes about whether I had bad breath or BO (body odor). Advertising campaigns regularly demonized these and other normal, human smells, and that sold a lot of toothpaste, mouthwash and deodorant. 

My concerns faded with adulthood, but the subject has come up again. I’ve discovered there’s a common belief that old people have a peculiar smell—and it isn’t pleasant.

Has my aroma changed? I can’t detect any difference. I have to admit, though, that when I’m on the treadmill at the health club and a 20-something trainer is standing next to me, I sometimes wonder whether her sense of smell tells a different story.

But does the aroma of aging actually exist or do some people just imagine it? The other day, I consulted Uncle Google to find out. Sure enough, out there on the web many younger people are complaining about how their elders smell. One person wants to know how to get the “old man” stench out of a bedroom after a visit from Grandpa. Another writes, “My grandma moved in and is doing the laundry and ever since my clothes are starting to have that nasty old lady smell.” (Note that Grandma gets no thanks for doing the family wash.)

My research also turned up a 2012 study confirming that older people do smell noticeably different. I was skeptical at first: how could scientists prove that? Most of us use fragrant soaps and shampoos; we eat spicy food; some smoke; others hang their clothes in musty closets. How could investigators single out essence of aging from all of that? Well, I found out.

In the study, Johan Lundström, a sensory neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, recruited 41 volunteers and asked each to sleep for five consecutive nights wearing a T-shirt that had pads sewn into its armpits to absorb perspiration. Some of the volunteers were in their 20s, others were middle aged (45-55) and still others were between 75 and 95. They were instructed to avoid anything—including soaps and shampoos—embued with a fragrance and were told what not to eat and drink.

Afterward, Lundström and his colleagues collected the armpit pads, cut them up and mixed the pieces in glass jars, segregating them by age. New volunteers were given the jars to sniff, with no clue to the age group of the odor donors. The bottom line: though the volunteers weren’t able to identify the smells contributed by the younger groups, they recognized the aroma of older people. Note, though, that they rated it both less unpleasant and less intense than the odors of the young and middle aged.

Lundström and his colleagues observe that skin glands and their secretions change as we grow older, so an accompanying change in body odors isn’t hard to explain. But why do so many people consider it unpleasant? My guess: those who harbor a prejudice against older people are not going to like the way we smell, nor are those who associate old age with sickness and death or who fear their own aging.  

Businesses are catching on to this potential market for deodorizing products. A You Tube video advertising a line of Japanese skin-care products begins by suggesting that children may reject grandparents who “stink.” It explains that the problem begins after about age 40. A specially formulated soap or body wash is supposedly the solution for people who reek of old age (an odor the commercial compares to rotting vegetables).

If those of us on the far side of 40 smell so bad, why aren’t we aware of it ourselves? The video explains that aging weakens the sense of smell, and anyway, it says, we’re so familiar with our own fragrance that we don’t notice it. That’s a bulletproof selling point if I ever heard one: tell consumers they have an offensive odor others are bound to notice that they themselves are incapable of detecting.

Move over, wrinkle creams: make room for body washes that combat elder odor. Ageism sells.