The ruling is in -- old people smell different, and a study released today reveals that people can identify the smell even when there isn't an actual old person around.
A study from Philadelphia researchers called "The Smell of Age
: Perception and Discrimination of Body Odors of Different Ages" dealt with the smells of three age groups: young (between 20 and 30), middle-aged (45 to 55), and old (75 to 95). How did they harvest these smells, you ask? Researchers sewed nursing pads into the armpits of T-shirts and made people sleep in them for a week.
Then, after the week of pad-smellifying (my word, not theirs), researchers made evaluators take big whiffs from these pads and guess which age group the pad came from.
Although they couldn't identify the difference between young and middle-aged stink samples with any consistency, the researchers say, the sniffers readily identified the samples from old folks, confirming the age-old (ha!) myth that old people smell different.
(It's a perception that crosses cultures too -- in Japan, they've got a whole word, kareishū, to describe old people scent.)
But there's some good news for Floridians surrounded by old folks -- the study also found that old-people odor was also the least offensive of the three groups.
The researchers wrote in the abstract, "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."
"The smells of old people don't seem to be as offensive as people believe," said Leslie Stein, spokeswoman for the Monell Chemical Senses Center, where three of the four researchers work. She said the scientists were "interested in social odors -- how we can receive information from our fellow people and what kind of information we can actually receive."
Well, now we know that we can receive information about who's old and who isn't, to a certain degree. Stein said the next steps would likely involve testing the age-detection capabilities of other age groups (the sniffers this time around were all between 21 and 30) and also an investigation into whether humans, like other animals, can detect the sex of a person from his or her smell.
"Turns out we can smell kin, we can smell relatives, we can smell our own babies, and they can smell us... The question was, what else is there?" Stein said. "You gotta start somewhere."