Smell Your Age

You have likely been told to act your age or look your age, but can you smell your age? According to new research, you can at least smell another person’s age. Apparently, humans can correctly identify a person’s age simply by smelling their body odor.

The group of genes that makes up the olfactory (sense of smell) receptors is the largest gene family in mammals. And, it’s no wonder why humans have evolved to be able to smell millions of odorants in minute concentrations: body odor helps us identify family versus non-family members, choose a mate, and differentiate between genders. Even though all this happens subconsciously, the olfactory sense is critical to our behavioral and social cues and our evolutionary history.

For the current study, researchers asked three groups of people to sleep in shirts with under-arm pads for 5 nights. The pads collected sweat from the three groups: young (20-30 years old), middle-aged (45-55), and old-aged (75-95). Then, they placed the pads in jars and asked 41 individuals to identify the age group of the person’s scent. Almost every participant was easily able to correctly identify the age group of the person whose sweat was in the jar.

The participants reported that old-age odors were more pleasant than younger age groups. Old-age odors were also less intense. In the young and middle-aged groups, participants were able to differentiate between genders. Middle-aged men were rated as having the most intense and most unpleasant odor.

Body odor results from a complex interaction among the skin, secretions from glands, and bacterial activity. Plus, diet and lifestyle habits influence body odor. As humans age, the composition of skin and of the body’s secretions change, along with a myriad of other factors, which likely results in smells identifiable with old age. Though these findings are interesting, the authors report little consequence for our daily lives. Olfaction is associated with memory, relational signals, food decisions, and overall health. But, is the ability to discriminate age or gender based solely on smell going to change the way we go about our daily olfactory activities? It conjures up visions of greeting people like my dog greets people, and that would stink.


Hoover KC (2010). Smell with inspiration: the evolutionary significance of olfaction. American journal of physical anthropology, 143 Suppl 51, 63-74 PMID: 21086527

Mitro S, Gordon AR, Olsson MJ, & Lundström JN (2012). The smell of age: perception and discrimination of body odors of different ages. PloS one, 7 (5) PMID: 22666457

Seo HS, Buschhüter D, & Hummel T (2008). Contextual influences on the relationship between familiarity and hedonicity of odors. Journal of food science, 73 (6) PMID: 19241571

Image via Sea Wave / Shutterstock.

  • Kaitlin


  • When people ask “what is health,” it’s usually understood by many people what’s being referred to. Most people don’t give any thought to the definition of health or how the word came into being. According to the World Health Organization, health is a state of complete physical and mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmary. Merriam-Webster gives several definitions for the word “health”: “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit,” “freedom from physical disease or pain” and “the general condition of the body as being.” Health is generally understood to mean your current condition in regards to your overall well-being or being “whole.”

    The word “health” is derived from the Old English word “hale,” with its meaning described as “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well.” In turn, “hale” is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root “kailo.” The WHO’s definition of health was officially created in June 1946 by the International Health Conference of the WHO. This definition was signed off a month later and made official in April 1948. Since then, the WHO’s definition of health has remained unchanged, although during the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion in 1986, the global health organization referred to health as “a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.”

    Health is usually divided into physical health and mental health. The most commonly accepted definition of physical health is maintaining a good body health through good nutrition, regular physical activity and adequate rest. Mental health is often defined as being of sound mind and faculties. The WHO has its own definition of mental health: “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” regardless of how mental health is defined, it remains largely subjective due to many people and experts having different opinions of what constitutes mental health.

    The word “fitness” can also be used to describe held to an extent, but this word is mainly used to describe the body’s current physical state in terms of exercise and diet. The next time you find yourself wondering “what is health,” now you’ll know.

  • tanvi shaikh

    how could we identify the actual smell of…neonatal,adolscent& geriatics…..wats the basic difference between the odours of three of them???

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.

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