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Do Older People Really Smell Different? Here’s What You Need to Know About Nonenal

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Odor – it’s a touchy subject, especially when it comes to the scents that may be associated with humans and the aging process. Some have asked the question: “Do older people really smell different?”

That musty, grassy, or greasy odor that may linger in elder care facilities, grandparents’ homes, and other similar places is, in fact, a researched condition that could be connected to the aging process, according to While some have inaccurately linked this scent with poor hygiene, scientists have another name for it: nonenal.

According to a study published by the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, nonenal is a chemical compound that is produced when omega-7 unsaturated fatty acids on the skin are degraded through oxidation. Around age 40 in both men and women, as the skin begins producing more fatty acids, its natural antioxidant defenses begin to deteriorate. Hormonal changes like menopause in women can contribute to this chemical process as well.

Not Everyone Agrees

In a New York Times column, essayist Ann Bauer discovered disagreement among researchers about this issue. Bauer noted that in 2001, Japanese researchers first discovered this unsaturated aldehyde called 2-nonenal that is more concentrated on the skin of older people.

The Japanese study was confirmed by Johan Lundstrom, who used study samples from the underarms of people from the ages of 20 to 95, and presented them to 41 participants who ranked them on intensity and unpleasantness. Dr. Lundstrom and his co-authors found that “participants were able to correctly assign age labels to body odors originating from old-age donors, but not to body odors originating from other age groups.”

But George Preti, a 74-year-old analytical organic chemist, says his studies did not match the results found by either the Japanese group or Dr. Lundstrom’s team. Dr. Preti’s team used upper back and forearm samples and submitted them to gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, concluding that “no method of analysis” revealed the presence of 2-nonenal in older subjects.

“Old people actually smell less than younger ones,” Dr. Preti said. “Unless you go to a nursing home, where there are hygiene issues in the mix, you’re not going to find this musty, unpleasant odor everyone is talking about.”

The scientists do agree that people with chronic diseases are more likely to give off odor, no matter what their age, according to Bauer. Dr. Preti attributed this more to diet, metabolism, and self-care. Dr. Lundstrom credited the possibility — which he is in the process of investigating — that ongoing inflammation leads to odorous cell decay.

Keep Things Fresh

Regardless of what causes scents around seniors and their homes, experts do agree that there are ways to keep older adults and their houses smelling fresh.

  1. Keep a flow of fresh air going through the house. Open windows periodically to let clean air in. Good ventilation can help prevent stale air from hanging around a house.
  2. Clean the house. Check the home for spoiled or expired food and ensure bedding is regularly washed. Wash clothing after each wearing and air out shoes.
  3. Practice good bodily and dental hygiene. Floss and brush teeth, gums, and tongue daily, and follow guidelines for proper care of dentures. Make sure that bathing is happening several times a week. Encourage sponge baths on those days when a full shower isn’t scheduled.
  4. Hydrate. Drinking plenty of water can help cleanse the body of odor.
  5. Repack old items. Old clothing and paper can carry a musty smell. Wash clothing, then store between dryer sheets. Put dried lavender in breathable cotton or linen bags and add them to storage containers. Set an open box of baking soda on closet floors, or hang a bag of cedar chips in closets.

It could be difficult for some seniors to follow the healthy routines mentioned above if they are dealing with illness or other aging or mobility issues. An older adult might need assistance, either from a family caregiver or a professional Home Instead CAREGiverSM. Contact your local Home Instead® to learn how in-home care could help keep a loved one’s home smelling fresh and that senior feeling good.

Last revised: November 7, 2019

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