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STEM Tuesday: Aging Stinks (NaPoWriMo)

Old People Smell

Getting older
Has an odor.

It's not as unpleasant,
As pesky adolenscents.

Grandpa with one of my sons and one of my daughters.
Grandpa at 89 with Adolescent Wrestler #1

My brother Frank said to Mom, “Why don’t you smell like old people?”  Mom, after all, is 87. Mom just laughed.

Yes, old people really do smell old.

It’s a dull, kind of sweet stink, sometimes described as a musty green smell. Just like everyone else,  chemicals from the skin glands get broken down into small odorous molecules.  But, as we age, more 2-nonenal gets created, giving us what’s been identified as an “old smell.”

The “old smell” starts to increase after the age of 40. And the oldest people (Mom) produce 3 times as much 2-nonenal as middle age people.

A study in Japan compared tee-shirts slept in for three days of various people. tee shirts with high levels of 2-nonenal actually smelled less unpleasant than tee shirts of younger people. That is, when the sniffer, sniffed without benefit of seeing the age of the body in the tee shirt.

Researches hypothesize that the “old smell” might signal a genetic advantage.  “Mate with this old person, cuz she/he has hearty genes.”  Duh, that only makes sense if the old person is a viral male.

Perhaps this is an advantage for the old woman’s gene pool, eliminating competition for her growing children. Mate away with the old woman, cuz she’s  not going to do a thing for perpetuating your gene-pool. “Fooled you, all that mating was just fun and games.”

So why doesn’t Mom smell old?

The answer may be in n a comment that Loved-One makes from time to time.  “Our sheets smell like an old man.” (He’s a smart man. He never says they smell like an old woman. )

Older people  tend to lose the ability to regulate their temperature, so they close up their houses to prevent drafts and chills. Plus, older people can feel more vulnerable, and stay inside with the windows closed.  This can concentrate the “old smell.”

We all go ‘nose blind.’ It’s the same reason, Larry was identifiable by his over-application of Stetson cologne back in the ’80s.  He couldn’t smell himself, but the rest of us knew as soon as Larry walked in the room.

Older people often are less physically active.  This often results in hanging clothes back in the closet instead of washing them.  The 2-nonenal builds up in the closet. The odor permeates the house and gets taken out the door when the clothes get put back on.

So there some truth to the advice I heard when I was a kid with my head buried in a book,

Mom has people coming in and out of her house every day.  She loves the outdoors, and is busy volunteering and getting involved with other people.

Mom: out and about and not smeeling (or acting) old.

Soon Mom’s children will attack her Spring Clean-up to-do list.  I’m pretty sure she’ll add, ‘get rid of any 2-nonenal,’ as soon as she reads this. That is, unless she’s thinking about protecting her now aging offspring with some non-gene-pool-perpetuation mating.



Published inThings


  1. That is very interesting. I didn’t know about the change in chemical secretions as we age. Glad to hear your mom is keeping active and engaged.

    • Adela Adela

      I didn’t know about the nonenal, either, Shari. I suspected that because many old people live alone and because they move less, perhaps they bathe less often. Being bedridden can result in what is known as an ‘E. coli swarm,’ which does create a distinct odor. I knew that we have less active saliva glands as we age, and living alone would result in less talking, so perhaps that resulted in a peculiar odor.

      It’s nice to know that in itself, the “old odor,” nonenal is actually less offensive that the younger odor. don’t you think?

        • Adela Adela

          I champion agreement, Maz. Unless I disagree, of course. Thanks for weighing in! <3

  2. Oh, this kind of creeped me out but it was interesting. I’m crazy sensitive to odors. So many of the lessons we learn as we get older have to do with get out, do things, open the windows! That helps with everything. I love perfume. I hope that as I get older, I’ll use it sparingly. Don’t want to be like Larry…

    • Adela Adela

      🙂 Anita. It’s interesting that the “old smell” actually is less offensive than the “young smell.” don’t you think?

    • Adela Adela

      🙂 Anita. I’m sure you won’t be like Larry.

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