What Causes that 'Old People' Smell
When you walk through the doors of even the cleanest and best-maintained senior living community or nursing home, you may detect a slightly musty or grassy odor. Depending on whom you're talking to, this might be deemed "old people smell” and associated with uncleanliness. But is there really a common odor to senior living communities, and if so, what causes it?
The Science Behind "Old People Smell"
There is an actual change in our body chemistry, as we get older. Starting at about age 40, human bodies begin to subtly change the way that omega-7 unsaturated fatty acids on the skin are degraded. As these acids are exposed to oxygen in the air, the change creates a smell, called "nonenal" after the 2-nonenal molecule that is produced in the breakdown process.
Exactly why this happens is still a mystery. It might have something to do with hormonal changes that occur as people age, or it might be related to changes in metabolism. It's not only a human problem; other mammals also produce different odors as they age.
Some researchers hypothesize that the change helps us use our sense of smell to detect when someone is older. Why would that be important? Who knows for sure, but it could be related to biology. Older individuals might make better -- or worse -- mates depending on species and circumstances, and being able to detect age through smell might be useful for some types of animals and humans.
How Can You Minimize Nonenal?
It's tough to get rid of this odor. That's because the fatty acids that help create the odor are not water soluble, so it does not wash off in the shower. In fact, the reason the smell is so distinct is because the acids can easily transfer to clothing and bedding that are close to the skin, and can't be washed off.
The best way to minimize the odor is for seniors to engage in healthy lifestyles that include regular exercise, clean eating, reduced stress and low or no tobacco or alcohol intake. Drinking plenty of water can help dilute the fatty acids and minimize their impact.
Some anecdotal evidence points to Japanese persimmon extract or some varieties of green tea to help break down the compounds responsible for the smell and dissipate it more quickly. Others suggest using an organic, fine salt or sugar scrub to keep skin exfoliated and remove oils.
There are a few other ways to reduce nonenal odor:
- Air out living areas regularly. Sometimes a senior’s environment can be warm and stuff which magnifies the odor. Open windows and use ventilation when possible.
- Wash clothing regularly. Because older people sweat less, they don't have the offensive body odor of a younger person and may not do laundry as often. Even though the nonenal-2 molecule isn't water soluble, a laundry supplement designed to fight stains and cut grease may help.
- Make sure bedding is clean. Air out bedding between use and wash regularly in hot water.
The Good News
While the ‘Old Person Smell’ may be a bit musty, it's still ranked less problematic than middle-aged body odor. In fact, people compare nonenal to the smell of cucumbers, aged beer and old books -- nothing inherently offensive.
So the next time you walk into a senior living community, nursing home or your parents’ house, you'll know why you smell what you smell. It's a natural byproduct of aging, and it can't be eliminated entirely even with superior cleaning and dedication to personal hygiene. For more information on aging, subscribe to our blog!