Flashback Friday: Study proves “old person smell” is real.

By Seriously Science | October 11, 2013 12:00 pm

Photo: flickr/artisrams

It’s a common stereotype that old people have a … unique … smell. According to this study, it’s a stereotype for a reason. The researchers first had young participants smell the body odors (collected as described below) of young, middle-aged, and old people.  They then asked the participants to rate the odors and tested how well they were able to distinguish between them. Somewhat surprisingly, the participants rated the old-age odors as “less intense and less unpleasant” than the young- and middle-age body odors; however, the participants also had an easier time specifically identifying the old-person odors compared to the other two categories. The authors provide a potential explanation for these results: “In everyday life, the old age odor is experienced in the context of an old individual being present. Odor valence ratings are highly dependent in which on the context they are experienced. A recent study demonstrated that the label assigned to an odor is a very important predictor of the rated pleasantness in that a label can turn an unlabeled neutral odor into an odor perceived as very negative. Thus, it is likely that the body odors originating from the old individuals would have been rated as more negative if participants were aware of their true origin.” 

The smell of age: perception and discrimination of body odors of different ages.

“Our natural body odor goes through several stages of age-dependent changes in chemical composition as we grow older. Similar changes have been reported for several animal species and are thought to facilitate age discrimination of an individual based on body odors, alone. We sought to determine whether humans are able to discriminate between body odor of humans of different ages. Body odors were sampled from three distinct age groups: Young (20-30 years old), Middle-age (45-55), and Old-age (75-95) individuals. Perceptual ratings and age discrimination performance were assessed in 41 young participants. There were significant differences in ratings of both intensity and pleasantness, where body odors from the Old-age group were rated as less intense and less unpleasant than body odors originating from Young and Middle-age donors. Participants were able to discriminate between age categories, with body odor from Old-age donors mediating the effect also after removing variance explained by intensity differences. Similarly, participants were able to correctly assign age labels to body odors originating from Old-age donors but not to body odors originating from other age groups. This experiment suggests that, akin to other animals, humans are able to discriminate age based on body odor alone and that this effect is mediated mainly by body odors emitted by individuals of old age.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/fdrossell Faith Denise Rossell

    i work with hospice patients and once lived where the elderly lived in independent living apartments…i can tell you there is a distinct and similar smell in their homes, rooms, clothes, cars, persons…it seems to start somewhere close to 70’s…

  • RWFG

    We need to raise taxes to study this threat on our senses. Think of the children.


    • Xavier Franco

      You’re an idiot.

  • LegendPix

    It might be useful & more sensitive to devise subliminal behaviour tests to quantitatively measure subconcious endorphin detection & reaction

  • http://oakandstag.tumblr.com Buckminster83

    “According to this study, it’s a stereotype for a reason.” – I’m not critiquing the article – but all stereotypes exist for a reason. They can also always be proven wrong. But that doesn’t make the stereotype wrong. Stereotypes can also change because they’re based on historic norms and fluctuations in society and cultures.

    In 300 B.C. there was no stereotype of a Native American owning a casino or an Asian owning a nail salon.

    • Irena Gallier

      Your post is not entirely coherent.

      A stereotype can exist for a reason but still not be true. Agreed.

      A stereotype can be wrong but that doesn’t make it wrong?


      • http://oakandstag.tumblr.com Buckminster83

        Meaning the stereotype itself as a generalization overall isn’t wrong for the sake of a minority (particularly a minority of exceptions) where it has been proven to not be accurate. For example: All politicians are liars and scumbags. But Senator So-and-So is actually a real human being and sacrifices their own beliefs to represent the people accurately. This one senator doesn’t change the stereotype- yet so many people and biased (or poorly executed) studies attempt to use the odd person out in order to prove the stereotype in question wrong.

    • Andrew Nielsen

      An exception does not prove a stereotype wrong.

      • Gavin

        What about a lot of exceptions? What’s the threshold?

      • http://oakandstag.tumblr.com Buckminster83

        Yeah I think that’s what I said.

    • Barack Obola III

      Stereotypes are real, that’s why they exist!

  • Mo Kane

    Sounds like a marketing opportunity for perfumes and colognes.

  • Del Horton

    Old Splice..The genetic cologne.

  • RMB38

    Wouldn’t the odor depend on a person’s physical activity and his/her frequency of showers? There is a BIG difference in the body odor generated by an otherwise clean person who has been doing physical labor (and is sweating) and an unclean person who has been doing nothing!


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