Old people smell

Old people smell different – and a few studies have posited a chemical basis for that difference.

Whistler's mother
James Abbott McNeill Whistler / Public domain

A warning at the start: today we’re getting into fringe science. Not pseudo-science, mind you, just an area of research that seems to me to be rather provisional and marginal.

Have you ever noticed that old people have a rather specific smell? It’s not bad, just a kind of neutral benign odour. One study has suggested that this smell is in fact the chemical 2-nonenal. We also find 2-nonenal in aged beer and buckwheat. Supposedly, as the human body ages it begins to produce this chemical as part of sweat and body odour.

But then another study suggests that it’s not 2-nonenal at all, but a cocktail of benzothiazole (connected to the chemical that makes fireflies glow), dimethylsulphone (which is also a seemingly harmless food additive), and nonanaldehyde (used in perfumes like Chanel No. 5; attracts mosquitoes). Like the 2-nonenal study, this research suggests that this combination of chemicals becomes more prominent as people get older.

Some scientists are sceptical that there’s a chemical change in the odour of old people at all, and attribute this to the state of hygiene in rest homes. So, my question for you: do old people smell more like beer and buckwheat, or fireflies, dietary supplements, and perfume?

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