Now Apologize to Your Grandmother: "Old People Smell" is a Myth, Study Says

By Andrew Moseman | July 17, 2008 12:55 pm

Old people smell? Not so fast.All right, no more complaining about “old people smell”—according to George Preti, it doesn’t exist.

Preti, a scent expert at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, became incensed at 2001 Japanese study concluding that the skin of people over 40 produces more chemicals with an unpleasant or greasy odor. Preti, being over 40 himself, set out to disprove that idea.


So he and his team asked a set of 25 volunteers to walk up and down the stairs until they got sweaty; then the scientists used funnels to collect the sweat of the subjects’ backs. Preti said the sweat of people over 40 had higher concentrations of a few chemicals compared to that of younger people, but the chemicals in question didn’t carry a strong smell. And, he said, he found none of the greasy-smelling chemical that the Japanese scientists found.

Why the difference in the studies? Fish, Preti says. The seafood-heavy Japanese diet could cause a buildup of unsaturated fatty acids, and other chemicals which would speed the oxidation of those acids. Of course, we won’t have to worry about that if seafood disappears, as some scientists predict.

Image: iStockphoto

MORE ABOUT: senses
  • http://www.mylucidreality.com Claudious

    Science can’t find something that’s so obviously there… so it’s not based on sweat, it’s based on diet, and medication, and a house where the couch hasn’t been moved (or sat on) since 1974.

  • christian bonerson

    its not that they smell, its the things they do and what they own, it all smells the same. smells like DEATH, i hate it.

  • Lorna Jordan

    Actually I’m beginning to get terrified that I will start to smell like that, now that I have turned 60.
    Hope someone comes up with some kind of antidote. As long as my brain works, I will continue to wash daily, keep clothes clean, change my bed regularly etc etc, but it might not be enough. HELP!

  • http://none PAUL NEUMANN

    SORRY! YOUR TEST RESULTS ARE SO VERY WRONG! MY NOSE DOESN’T LIE!
    THEY STINK! I HAVE WORKED WITH ENOUGH SENIORS TO KNOW! NO MATTER HOW CLEAN THEY ARE, OLD PEOPLE HAVE A DI-STINK-ED ODOR!

  • Kathy

    I gotta say that it may not be their diet as much as what they put on their bodies. I live w/my father-in-law and he stinks. His house stunk when we moved in, and he leaves an awful smell in my car. Febreze helps my car and since we moved in, his house doesn’t smell as bad because I clean it regularly and keep his bedroom door closed. His bedroom and bathroom still stink and I clean them regularly as well. Their sense of smell has gone down the tubes and so they tend to pile on stuff until they can smell it. At least he does and he doesn’t even realize how awful he smells. He doesn’t smell of lots of odors just old smell. Just gross.

    • Geesmimi

      one day all you posters will be old

  • http://msn just me

    They do have an odor, but I can’t quite call it though. It’s a cross between dead flesh and muskiness. Pew!

  • jm.addington@hotmail.com

    It seems we all know the smell. Maybe, the person doing the test. HE!himself is an old guy. Hay, go change your clothes!!LOL…

  • http://dontknow Zoe

    ANYWAY I SAY THEY DO (SOME) “THEY HAVE AN ODOR” SWEAT! AND THEY SAY THE DONT SWEAT! HA! YES THEY DO I WORK IN THE HEALTH CARE FIELD AND BROTHER YES THEY DO! THEY DONT REALIZE THEY STILL SWEAT! AND THEY DONT LIKE TO SHOWER OFTEN OR PUT ON DEORDERANT! AND OVER A PERIOD OF TIME THERE GLANDS OMIT OIL AND IT STINKS TO HIGH HEAVEN IF NOT SCRAPPED OFF I MEAN REALLY SCRAPPED OFF WITH A SCRUBBY OR LUFFA ITS PRETTY STINKY YA’LL AND ITS REALLY,REALLY SAD THAT NO ONE HAS THE BRASS TO TELL THEM TO THERE FACE YOU ARE SWEATY AND NEED TO BE CLEANSED 2X3 TIMES A WEEK!! LIVING IN THE DESERT EVEN OR VAST ALASKA THEY SWEAT EVERYWHERE. THANK YOU

  • ANN

    i think old people have weak badders and pee alittle when they cough or get up from a chair. their furniture gets some pee on it, as time goes on there more pee and the pee gets old and stinks. Old peoples house smell like old pee.

  • Aaron

    First, unless this article is not representing his work very well (a good possibility), George Preti is not a very good scientist. Are we meant to believe that he concludes definitively that something doesn’t exist from a single null result?

    Second, since when is over 4o old? When people think of old-person smells they are talking about at least 60, if not 70 and above. When people get that age they use various products that younger people don’t, like depends, dentures, and mothballs. They also have more decay in their mouth than younger people, which obviously can’t smell nice. When I get to 60 yrs, I’m just going to off myself.

  • Margo

    After reading all of these comments, I laughed so hard I almost pee’d. I am turning 60 in 2 weeks. I’m looking forward to asking young friends if I have started to smell. If I have, I will take Aaron’s advice and off myself.

  • Phill-bot 4000

    I too am considering offing myself at 60 if old-people-smell takes hold. Oh, and George Preti’s results prove nothing. This research is half-hearted and old people do have the funk. I’ve smelled it. It smells like tennis balls and attics.

  • bcpurshe

    This is a BS “study”. Old people smell (not all of them) and they all have that same smell.

  • medicn

    Listen the reason old people or there homes have a smell is because of the urine that either comes out of the body. Gets on stuff and not cleaned properly as in nursing home or at old peoples homes where they used old cleaning products. That contained ammonia this was the number one cleaning aid for years and years also ammonia is found in urine

  • http://toucharete.com amber berglund

    I agree, older people (after the age of 70) have a smell that is different than younger people. I like to call it “The smell of impending death” to me, it kind of smells like Chanel No. 19. But, it’s logical.

    Hormones make your body smell a certain way. Not everyone was born with the receptors to sense certain hormones by smell. Androstenone. Some people are repulsed by it, others can’t smell it at all.

    I was tested. I can smell androstenone. I’ve also been in a room full of older people exercising…and there is a smell. It’s old-person smell.

    Why is it so strange to believe that old-person-smell exists? Most people can tell the difference between young man sweat from young woman sweat. I can even smell when my female friends are menstruating. That hormone (or lack of hormone) comes off of them like perfume. I’ve smelled it on myself, for sure.

    Old-person-smell exists, because so many people say it exists. To me, it still smells like Chanel No. 19.

  • GravyBoat

    Old people do have the funk and no one I know can put their finger on where it comes from or describe it precisely. I couldn’t handle visiting my grandmother’s house. No matter how sweet she was I couldn’t think about anything but what part of her body was decaying and causing that eye-watering, stick to the roof of your mouth, make you vomit odor. I’ve worked with old people and everyone my age could smell it, it does exist. I now live in Japan and the old people here smell exactly the same as the old people in the states. Old folk funk is universal.

  • http://www.ihateyoungpeople.com/ IHYP

    Here’s what some kiddies on the streets of NYC had to say about it. :-)

    http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid900837105?bclid=900668361&bctid=1432754106

    ihateyoungpeople (dot) com

  • http://na lilly

    The posters are 100% right (forget George P he must be 80 himself) I remember this “smell”
    from my grandmas back when I was a little one. Its like a sickly sweet odor, I didnt
    mind it too much back then as i loved my grammy, but i did notice too that random visits to old peoples homes or apartments also had that smell. I have Googled the topic & a Japanese researcher determined that everybody secretes this Fatty Acid through our pores, think its called Palmyric acid & related to a fatty acid in macadamia nuts. After the age of 70 the secretion of this stuff through the pores goes off the charts so to speak. Its so bad that all the old persons clothes though clean will have the odor, the bedding & curtains in the room too
    I think dust in the room captures this fatty acid so its in the curtains, lampshades, windows
    that maybe dusty. I have my 80 yr mom in law living with us and sure enough she stinks. I have to fight to get her in the shower & sneak out her clothes to wash, she says they are clean! (Yeah, clean but stinky) My daughter helps me at shower time & I have told her that she is to tell me when my turn comes around & I will not be obnoxious & hateful like my mother in law is about people who want to help you be socially presentable
    by giving you a shower. We use AXE mans liquid soap on her heavy duty version.
    I have found the best success at combating this is “Oust” citrus spray, which I spray in the air, on the bedding , on the curtains etc. “Oh I wash up everynight” she tells me! “well are you an octopus who washes your back, your feet, your hair” Even the wash cloth & towel , shes done with them & they are on towel rack & emit this odor
    So its 24/7 trying to keep a handle on this. Have read though on the net that “Citrusy” fragrances are the best to combat this. Japan perfume company even has a line of pricey items to combat the fatty acid smell & its citrus based, spray perfume is $120. thats right one hundred twenty bucks for an ounce. I may spend some of her SS check on a bottle of this stuff. Google “old people smell” info is out there.

  • MG

    Old bodies smell because they have a different hormonal content and chemical components overall. It’s not even a bad smell, it’s a very specific smell. The skin is the main factor – old people’s skin is very differner from younger ones, even when it’s clean, it’s no longer has the same smell as it was before.

  • L PAT WILLIAMS

    This is INTERESTING! I was actually looking for articles on GOOGLE as to why “old people overeat, rather indulge on sweets.” Then I found this. Listen, my Grandma who passed in 95, was 71, my parents are now pushing their 70s, and THEY DONT STINK. But, I have to be honest, my Great-Grandpa who was 94 when he passed in the early 90s did emit THAT SMELL. It is a REAL PHENOMENON. The smell is real. But, I think the answer is RIGHT UNDER OUR NOSES — Pun intended!

    Must folks on here have all said the same thing, how their older relatives DON’T LIKE TO SHOWER OR BATHE. Or, they take those “quickie wash ups.” And, the realities are, if you don’t thoroughly wash your tail no matter what age, your behind is going to stink. Young people tend to cleanse not only more thoroughly than older folks, but more regularly – Why?

    Younger people are STILL: In school, At Work, Dating, Marrying, Making Babies, Having Sex, Trying to Have Sex, Clubbing, Partying, Socializing, Networking, Hitting the streets, hitting the bars, traveling, vacationing, trying to maintain “attractiveness” either by CHOICE or FORCE. All this translates to a very REAL PHENOMENON — Hygiene at these ages are still RELEVANT. Why? Because a younger person is HIGHLY active in PUBLIC and SOCIAL INTERACTION.

    So, many times a young person is showering and bathing regularly, daily and sometimes
    twice a day depending on how many times they are hitting the gym, going out with pals,
    romancing on dates, attempting to get the job, the promotion at the job, etc.

    When you are OLDER many of these things have already been achieved, accomplished and/or lose their relevance. Most older people pass 70, if they are not hip, active, healthy and “still keeping visibly and regularly sociable” LOSE the drive, ambition and motivation of KEEPING UP WITH THEIR HYGIENE.

    SOCIAL INTERACTION is the ANTIDOTE to SMELLINESS!

    Most old folks tend to stay in the house more, tend to lose many of their friends to death or simply to homebound illnesses, they tend to not aspire 0r desire “long interaction” with social settings or individuals…

    All this leads to a DOWNGRADE OF HYGIENE.

    Listen, the same holds TRUE for KIDS.

    Most kids, especially boys!!! But, sometimes and some girls too!
    Are very, very smelly at certain ages! Hormones are changing (like in old folks)
    but, while kids “play with each other” they don’t have the “developed” drive or
    NEED to keep up hygiene and appearances for the reasons say a young person
    in their MID-TEENS (when kids appearances, fashion and hygiene tends to improve)
    up to say 35 or 40 year olds.

    These ages are the MATING, DATING, MARRYING, SOCIAL AGES, where it is very
    critical to maintain GOOD HYGIENE for purposes of ATTRACTION and ADVANCEMENT.

    So, in my humble opinion…

    Older people have to FIND that PASSION, that DRIVE, THAT MOTIVATION to stay
    in “the game of life” keep active, keep social (travel, attend church and religious
    gatherings, attend movies, outings, hobbies, plays, artshows, etc.) all this will keep
    them MOTIVATED to keep up DAILY, REGULAR GOOD HYGIENE.

    But, you can’t “quickie wash” your butt 1 -2 times a week, repeat clothing, stay
    locked up indoors NO MATTER WHAT YOUR AGE and expect not to smell!

    You have to THOROUGHLY WASH DAILY or at least nothing less than 4 out 7 days, and I mean WASH, a real 20 – 30 MINUTE SHOWER or a 30-45 MINUTE BATH with nice smell goods, bath oils, body washes, etc. regardless of whether you are 5 or 95.

    BTW: MY PARENTS ARE VERY SOCIALLY ACTIVE AND “KEEP UP WITH FASHION” these things keep them “young” and smelling FRESH AND CLEAN.

  • Q

    The old people smell is a universally accepted tactic for avoiding lengthy contact with smart-assed, annoying people of all ages.

    • Grneyes

      Bahahaha – your old! Funny!

  • frustrating phenom

    I am inclined to agree with comment #20. Though I am sure that age does have something to do with it, consider this. From the time I moved into a studio apartment when I was 29 to just recently moving out at 31, I noticed a range of smells that went from good to bad and back to good and back to bad. I dated some very clean, hip younger girls and had decent social experiences during that time. I also experienced social disgrace that would make a person either go postal or need long term therapy. On a number of occasions. And at one point when I thought a pair of jeans “probably was not that bad”, it turned out that it really was. I knew it the same as everyone else in the crowd once the heat turned up both literally and emotionally, and the moral is, if the question is there at all, do not enter that social situation no matter how “looked forward to” it is, because you will truly be scarred by it. I overheard one of the 20 something hipsters around me say (with some of my 20 something hipster friends within earshot) “Smells like old people”. And for a 30 yr old that has been into college music for a while, if you think that didn’t make me want to do a murder homicide, well…Guess what I held in common with “old people”? Having been laid off for a number of months, I was highly sedentary. I thought I was cleaning the apartment and living clean constantly enough, but apparently not. Studios , because they are cramped, can be very very aggravating in that smell area. The bottom line is, TAKE SOLACE in the fact that if you are “old”, there is a youngish guy out there that is inevitably called cute whenever he meets a new girl, never has a problem getting a number, and yet certain living conditions and lack of vigilance can have anyone (INCLUDING THIS GUY) possibly permanently scarred, though maybe to a productive end. It does make you paranoid. But I really don’t think that anyone at any age is doomed with some sick enzyme or body chemistry that makes them smell bad. I am glad #20 said something about this, because some of the very idiotic and cruel and inhumane people that have posted things on here should understand how it feels on the other end. I went through it on a few occasions. Luckily when I look in the mirror I see someone that looks very young, many have said 23…But I know what social damning hell and worthlessness feels like related to smell. I originally did the search and thank God I found the #2o post. Let’s all remember that as an organic human being in flesh we all are going to smell like something at any age, because we eat, breathe, sweat, piss, have smells related to our sexual chemistry, etc. The Old Testament has some great books that go into detail on specific rules Moses gave for the tribe camped at Sinai. This is what it is to be human.

    As long as you go three or four times beyond your usual routine of house cleaning, laundry cleaning, and hygeine and do it over a long-term basis, you will not feel like a leper. You will not feel like the only dirty smelly bad one in a world or nice wonderful disney sort of androids. If you found this link because you felt bad about yourself and wanted to fix it, read #20 again, work 3 times harder on the areas listed above, and remember that we are about to celebrate the birthday of The One who let himself be incarnate to understand just how complex and basic it is to be here in this form. If all else fails, call to Him for strength and continue in your own efforts. It is smell, and it is transient. Long-term, consistently above-and-beyond, militaristically positive cleaning will bring the change. I’m still getting there myself.

    GOD BLESS US, EVERYONE.

  • N

    hey Q, if old people stink on purpose to avoid people it’s not working. check out all the complaints on here!

  • http://www.ihateyoungpeople.com IHYP

    Oops! Let mr try posting this link one more time.

    Kids on the streets of NYC discuss this issue! :-)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daV3BvDNAOI&feature=player_embedded

  • PaulP

    Sorry to tell you this but, it is no myth. My mother in law smells like a lockerroom with a broken bathroom door. I’m pretty sure it is a hygene issue but there is also a underlying odor of decay. I can not sit in the same room with her and often retreat outside or to another room. This is an ongoing sore spot with me and my wife. We have tried talking to her about it to no avail. I would never ever think about venturing into her room with out a hazmat suit. Nasty!!!!!

  • Jay

    Old people do have a scent, it is not a bad smell but it is very hard to describe. It’s almost like a very light scent of burning sugar . Interestingly enough it has nothing to do with them taking a bath or their personal hygiene , they do however all smell the same to me anyways even older members of my own family.

  • Lisa

    I’ve smelled the same smell in older people (over 70) in different areas of the country and over years apart. The way I can describe it is a faintly moldly and subtle early/mid decaying meat smell. It’s like a “grey mist”.

  • Daniel

    Science disagrees with this unscientific smell test. Basically old people are proven to produce more 2-nonenal the older they get. Its described as smelling like a library. If you cover it up by making all participants smell sweaty then you hide the difference in baseline body smell.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2-Nonenal

  • Sher

    POOR SCIENCE. A bad article trying to deny the undeniable.

  • Bob

    I always thought ‘old people smell’ was just the old-fashioned naphthalene flakes/mothballs they use.

  • Julie

    Wow…What a terrible study. As people age, especially pass 40 they smell worse. It’s just a biological reality. Our odor signals the quality of our immune system and generally the quality of our genetic material. For example, it has been shown that good looking people smell better. Odor is also strongly linked to hormone levels which definitely change as people age so of course the body odor will change accordingly.

    Sorry for all older people but they smell bad. It’s just a biological reality no need to deny it because other, younger people can smell you anyway. You can’t hide your old people smell-ness. Again, just wow…what a terrible unscientific study.

  • Sherrie

    old people smell is true. I imagine it’s down to hormone levels and thing that old people lack.

    It’s just nature’s way to tell us we’re not supposed to have with old people because that would be reproductively and sexually deleterious.

  • Dennis Teel

    The smell doesn’t have to do with age.it has to do with how well people take care of themselves after they get older.fewer showers,clothes not washed as often and the household chores(dusting,etc) not being done near as often.the medication that elderly people take will produce an odor via their pores.that’s a medical fact and that’s GENERALLY the smell that is being noticed,along with any cream or ointments for arthritis,etc..my mother is 86 and my father is almost 93. they both get around on a daily basis and my father even walks the treadmill for 30 minutes daily.they don’t have that old person smell that so many speak of here.and by the way,it’s obvious that you people are from america or britain(ie, english speaking country) as you don’t carry much respect for your elders.some of you are simply crass. and for this moron that posted here that ALL old people smell bad,well,youre an idiot.not all older people smell bad.no wonder that most of the world has a problem with america.the people are rude and certainly don’t have much respect for the elderly.

  • 50 and smelling fine thank you

    Some smells with aging have to do with hormonal changes, but for the most part I think that Japanese study sounds more like agism attitudes than anything else. If those people paid attention, they’d realize that ANY age where there are rapid hormonal changes can affect the way a person actually smells or perceives other peoples smells. Don’t believe me? Just walk down the halls of any middle school. Trust me, the place will smell of “teen spirit” and I don’t mean the Kurt Cobain song either.

  • Ray

    I think Dennis Teel (post # 33) hit the nail right on the head!! ,
    Unfortunately the ignorance extends not only to America and or the UK,
    Discrimination and Ignorance exist all over the world!!

  • Gaz

    W

  • Christian

    The only thing this ‘study’ proves is that people sweat during physical exertion. What a ridiculous article.

  • Putchum

    My mother-in-law lives with us.  She wets herself and wears pads all the time.  She has her livingroom and we have ours.  Because she loses water, the reclining chair she sits in, stinks out the livingroom.  She has lost her sense of smell so she don’t even know how bad it is.  The kitchen chair stinks that she sits in. She showers once every couple of weeks and washes daily.  How do I tell her she stinks and she needs to bathe or shower every couple of days at least.  We don’t get along perfectly as it is, this will make it worse, our house stinks!

  • Angelvanquish

    so glad I found this site to explain what that smell is, my mum has just gone back home after spending one night and yuk that smell is all over the spare room, even up my nose now, the sheets are in the wash now and the bed has been stripped and sprayed with perfume but I can still smell it.  I ran the shower for her today, watched her put on the shower cap and then she went in only to be out by the time I got to the bottom of the stairs.  What is the point of that, the bath mat was dry, the towel was dry.  Old dirty clothes back on.  It’s rotting decay and stinks.  I feel annoyed !

  • Grneyes

    It isn’t from sweat – its internal. I mean you can tell the difference between sweat and death breath – this is death breath on steriods. Seriously!

  • Zigi

    Oh boy! A test group of 25 over 40, many, if not most of them, before menopause/andropause, I presume - how relevant is it for contesting the Japanese research of aging odor that refers squarely for post-menopause/andropause people and, most likely, people over 70 or 80?

  • Guest

    all of you should be out of the old people wills and left nothing but there old people smell.

  • Michael Hunt Esq.

    And now this Preti guy, with his statistically inadequate sample set of people, has now been disproven.
    http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/30/scientists-confirm-existence-of-old-person-smell/?hpt=hp_c2

    • http://discovermagazine.com/ DISCOVER magazine

      I wouldn’t count Preti down-and-out quite yet. First of all, he was only looking at the differences between under-40s and over-40s, whereas the new study defines “old” as 75-95 years old. Plus, the new paper (available here http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038110) doesn’t make a super strong case, which is why we’re not covering it.

      The new study tested only 41 young participants (again, not a particularly large sample size) on their ability to determine age based on smell. And the subjects did not pass all the smell-and-age tests. When faced with two samples of body odor, the subjects failed to accurately determine which one came from the older individual. (If you look at chart C, you can see that all the results hover around the solid line at 50%, which represents chance performance.)

      Ah, but they did pass the task of labeling body odor as coming from an old person. They had to label each body odor as coming from someone young (20-30, labeled Y), middle-aged (45-55, labeled M), or old (75-95, labeled O). For each age category, the best possible performance would be 2 correct labelings. On average, participants failed to get even one correct one. Only when labeling old samples did the participants do significantly better than chance — and even then, they got an average of 0.74 out of 2 right. 

      Perhaps as you suggest, researchers should work with larger sample sizes to get more impressive results.

  • Tahelia Powe

    Lovely how the CNN article leaves out the part about how the people who identified the old person smell actually said that smell was MORE PLEASANT! http://bodyodd.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/05/30/11958027-is-old-person-smell-real-yes-but-its-not-what-you-think?lite

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