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Old people smell exists, and it's nicer than we think, study suggests


Elderly Japanese people mingle at a community centre in Minamisanriku, Japan, on March 5, 2012.


Daniel Berehulak

It's been unkindly referred to as ''nursing home smell'' or ''old people smell.'' The Japanese even have a name for it, "kareishu," according to Science Now.

However, a new study has revealed that while old people have a distinctly different odor to the young and middle-aged, it's rated as a better smell by other humans in a blind sniff test. 

Further, the study by American and Swedish scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and the Monell Chemical Senses Center suggested, humans — although not known for their acute sense of smell — can more accurately detect the scent of older people, regardless of race, creed, or diet, than those aged under 75.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, researchers collected odor samples from "donors" in three groups — young (20-30), middle aged (45-55), and old (75-95) — using underarm pads that the participants slept in for five nights.

The donors were asked to shower with odorless shampoo and soap and also to abstain from alcohol, smoking and spicy food, Australia's Fairfax media added.

The scientists then asked group of 20 men and 21 women between the ages of 20 and 30 to try and determine which odors were similar to each other, and group them, the Inquirer wrote. 

While they did a particularly good job of picking the odors from the old donors, the sniffers were slightly less adept at distinguishing middle-aged body odor from youthful body odor, study leader Johan Lundstrom said.

Odors were also rated on a scale ranging from ''extremely unpleasant'' to ''extremely pleasant'' — with results reportedly clearly showing that the old-age group of odors were rated as less intense and less unpleasant when compared with the younger and middle-aged samples.

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'This was surprising given the popular conception of old age odor as disagreeable,'' Dr Lundstrom said, according to the Australian Associated Press.

''However, it is possible that other sources of odor, such as skin and breath, may have different qualities.''

Lundstrom said that people who found the elderly smell unpleasant might be setting it in an unattractive context, like a dreary nursing home or a stuffy parlor.

"Context is an important part of the human sense of smell," he said, Science Now reported. "Many people think parmesan cheese smells like vomit if they don't realize what it is." 

The results of the study were published in Friday’s issue of the journal Public Library of Science One.