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Youngsters can sniff out elderly: evaluators describe scent as 'earthy' and 'mild'.

"Old people smell" is for real--and it isn't mothballs, Jean Nate or pipe tobacco. It's a mild and not unpleasant odor compared with the intense, unpleasant smell emitted by 40- to 50-something guys, a new study finds.

Scientists don't know what makes up the vintage chemical fingerprint, but the negative association with the smell of the elderly appears to be more about context than scent, says Johan Lundstrom of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Lundstrom and colleagues collected underarm odors from 12 to 16 people in each of three age groups: young (20 to 30 years old), middle-aged (45 to 55 years old) and old (75 to 95 years old). For five nights while they slept, study participants wore T-shirts with breast-feeding pads sewn in the underarms. The shirts and bed linens had been washed with scent-free soap and the participants did the same to themselves before going to bed each night. They refrained from smoking, drinking alcohol or eating foods known to contribute odors to bodily secretions.

Evaluators (ages 20 to 30) then sniffed the armpit pads, rating the samples on pleasantness and intensity, and guessing which of two odors came from the older donor. The evaluators had trouble discerning young from middle-aged odors. But the odors from old donors were correctly identified more often than would be expected by chance, the research team reports online May 30 in PLoS ONE.

"These elderly odors were very distinct and easy to group together," says Lundstrom. Odors from old men were rated most pleasant among males, especially compared with middle-aged men. (Middle-aged woman odors were rated more pleasant than elderly woman odors.)

And descriptions of the elderly odors weren't negative: Evaluators used phrases such as "earthy" or "mild, like stale water," Lundstrom says.

"Everything changes with age, so it's not a huge surprise," says Dustin Penn, who heads the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology in Vienna.

The possible mechanisms behind bodily bouquets are most intriguing, he says. Perhaps the drop in testosterone that occurs in old age makes the older scents discernible. Work by Penn and others suggests that a person's micro-flora also contributes to Eau de You.

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Title Annotation:Body & Brain
Author:Ehrenberg, Rachel
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1U2PA
Date:Jun 30, 2012
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