Smells Like Teen Spirit – Only Older
by Jeff Carmack
I knew it! I’ve been saying it for years and no one would believe me. But now I have been vindicated:
Old people really do smell funny.
And how do we know this? Through the magic of science, that’s how!
Who studies the way old people smell? Johan Lundström, that’s who. Lundström is a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia (aka The City of Brotherly Love and/or Armpit Sniffers). He studies human and animal body odors and how the brain responds to them. He also speaks occasionally at an elderly care center in Philly. While speaking one day he realized that the center smelled almost exactly like the nursing home his mother managed in Sweden when he was young (minus the lingonberry aroma).
Lundström thought that perhaps the octogenarian funk really did emanate from the residents: after all, he knew about earlier research on how animal body odors were affected by age. So the olfactorily inquisitive Lundström decided to test whether people could pick out old people strictly by the way they smell.
How do you do that without hanging out at bingo halls or making a trip to Branson?
Well, Lundström and his colleagues sewed absorbent pads into the armpits of T-shirts and asked 44 volunteers of different ages to sleep in the shirts for five consecutive nights. The researchers divided the sleepers into three groups: eight women and eight men between 20 and 30 (the young); the same number of men and women between 45 and 55 (middle-aged); and six women and six men between 75 and 95 (elderly).
After the fifth night, blindfolded volunteers sniffed the sweat-soaked armpit pads (and you thought your job sucked) and were asked to identify the age and the donor pits. Lo and behold, Lundström was right: although subjects had a hard time correctly matching pads to the young and middle-aged they had no problem sniffing out the oldies.
Contrary to the popular notion that old person smell is disagreeable, volunteers rated the bouquet of the elderly as ‘not unpleasant’. Speaking from experience, I know this is true—especially if the older person is wealthy and has remembered you in his will.
While the study of smells (stankology?) is in its infancy, people have long recognized that smells can be extremely powerful in evoking memories. French novelist Marcel Proust, in his Remembrance of Things Past, recalls how the smell of a tea-cake eaten as an adult brought back a flood of memories from his childhood. Likewise, the smell of pine trees makes my wife think of Christmas in the same way that the pungent tang of ganja and BO reminds me of Phish concerts.
[Editor note: No elderly people were harmed in the writing of this blog post. For more on smells—specifically how to smell good—check out our Ask Elle column on how to wear cologne ]