It may sound like an item torn directly from the News of the Weird, but headlines have been buzzing lately over a study that seems to prove the existence of "old people smell." Not only did the investigation find that it is a real, measurable aroma, but it also determined that volunteers tended to like the smell of older people's body odor better than that of young folks. No word, though, on whether elderly halitosis smells better than anyone else's...
The study is no joke
While the subject matter may sound silly or disparaging, researchers intended it to be neither. The goal was quite simple. The team - including eminent scientists from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and neuroscientists from Sweden's Karolinska Institute, said they "sought to determine whether humans are able to discriminate between body odor of humans of different ages."
The surprising results appeared in the journal PLoS ONE.
Basically, the answer is yes. People can ballpark your age, without ever seeing you, based on your BO. Researchers came to this realization in a simple way.
Pads, pungency, perception and pleasantness
To start, the group asked a number of participants to sleep in a special t-shirt (complete with armpit pads) for five nights in a row. These folks were between the ages of either 20 to 30, 45 to 55, or 75 to 95 years of age.
After collecting the samples, researchers then recruited volunteers to smell the pads. Each person was invited to describe the intensity and pleasantness of the samples, and well as to guess the relative age of each odor's "owner".
The team found two interesting things. First, volunteers were fairly good at determining a person's age based on their body odor. And second, most people reported finding elderly odor to be less intense and more pleasant than that of younger people.
As co-author Johan Lundstrom told Medical News Today, "this was surprising, given the popular conception of old age odor as disagreeable. However, it is possible that other sources of body odors, such as skin or breath, may have different qualities."
He may be onto something there...
Elderly halitosis is special
If you think "old people smell" is a hot scientific topic, wait until you get a load of the number of papers written on the subject of elderly bad breath. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of investigations have addressed the questions of whether older adults have a distinct oral odor and what causes it.
Generally, there's not much agreement over whether elderly halitosis has its own scent, though it certainly could. After all, numerous studies have shown that this form of bad breath usually comes from unique causes.
For example, a study published in the journal Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics found that elderly people with halitosis or impaired taste tend to report the same two problems: Nearly three-quarters of participants had dry mouth, and roughly one in 10 had a sensation of oral burning.
What do these symptoms come from? Based on an analysis of individual health reports, the team found that four variables seem to play into whether an elderly individual will suffer from halitosis:
- Denture use
- Tongue coating
- Frequency of tooth-brushing
In other words, older folks tend to experience dry mouth and oral scum caused by unwetted or improperly cleaned dentures. (These findings were confirmed in a separate study appearing in the journal Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology, Oral Radiology and Endodontology.) Add to that the incidence of tooth decay and periodontal disease among the elderly, and what you get is a specific brand of bad breath.
But all is not lost. To treat age-related dry mouth and oral odor, many experts suggest using specialty breath freshening toothpastes, mouthwashes, denture care tablets or periotherapy rinses.
Likewise, dentists often recommend that elderly patients drink more water throughout the day or suck on ice chips, as a way to keep the mouth moist.