People can identify other people's ages based on their body odors, according to a study published May 30 in the open access journal PLoS ONE. Much of this ability is based on identifying odors of elderly individuals, but contrary to popular belief, the so-called 'old-person smell' is less intense and less unpleasant than body odors of middle-aged and young individuals, the researchers report.
Like non-human animals, human body odors contain an array of chemical components that can transmit various types of social information, and the composition of these odors changes across a person's lifespan. To test whether people can intuitively sense these changes, the researchers, led by Johan Lundström of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, collected body odors, in the form of a t-shirt with underarm pads slept in for five nights, from young, middle-aged, and old participants. These scents were then assessed by a different set of evaluators, who were asked to rate the intensity and pleasantness of each odor, identify which of two scents came from the older individual, and estimate the age of the individual who produced each sample.
The participants were able to discriminate between the three donor age categories, and the researchers found that it was odors from the old-age group that were driving this ability. Interestingly, however, evaluators rated body odors from the old-age group as less intense and less unpleasant than odors from the other two age groups.
"Elderly people have a discernible underarm odor that younger people consider to be fairly neutral and not very unpleasant," said Lundström. "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."
Citation: Mitro S, Gordon AR, Olsson MJ, Lundstrom JN (2012) The Smell of Age: Perception and Discrimination of Body Odors of Different Ages. PLoS ONE 7(5): e38110. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038110
Financial Disclosure: This work was supported in part by the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders – NIDCD (R03DC009869) and the Swedish Research Council – VR (2008-20712). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. No additional external funding received for this study.
Competing Interest Statement: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
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