Humans can smell one another’s age

Kim Hookem-Smith
31 May 2012

Old people do have a distinct smell, but contrary to popular belief, it’s actually less intense and more pleasant than younger people, according to new research.

The investigation involved groups of people in three age ranges, young (20 to 30), middle aged (45 to 55) and old (75 to 95). They were instructed to sleep in the same T shirt, with extra pads under the armpits, for five nights in a row. The pads were then cut up and put into jars for an evaluating team of 41 people aged 20 to 30 to smell.


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The evaluators were able to smell a difference between the three groups and were asked to rate how intense the odour was and how pleasant. They found that the old people’s samples smelled fairly neutral and not very unpleasant. Sniffers found it more difficult to tell the difference between young and middle aged scents but generally younger men fared the worst.

“Young guys are stinky, middle aged guys are even more stinky, and when they got old it goes away,” said lead researcher Dr Johan Lundstrom, in the report published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE. He added that after 80, the body reverts back to a ‘second childhood’ in terms of body odour, which is why the older group had a less intense smell.

 

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This ability to differentiate smells by age could mean that just like our cousins in the animal kingdom, we use subtle and subconscious signals to help us in our relationships and pick a partner.

"Similar to other animals, humans can extract signals from body odours that allow us to identify biological age, avoid sick individuals, pick a suitable partner, and distinguish kin from non-kin," said Dr Lundstrom.

"Elderly people have a discernible underarm odour that younger people consider to be fairly neutral and not very unpleasant,” he added.  “This was surprising given the popular conception of old age odour as disagreeable. However, it is possible that other sources of body odours, such as skin or breath, may have different qualities."

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