Body odor – it’s a touchy subject, especially when it comes to the scents associated with older people. Your body odor can change throughout your life cycle. Different stages of life come with its distinct scent. Think of a newborn baby, they have that fresh scent. Again a teenage boy also has a distinct scent that is very different from a baby’s. Older adults are no different. Many describe the scent of older people as being mildly sweet and musty.
The major odor compound at play is called 2-nonanal produced as a by-product when chemicals break down in the body with age. While lifestyle and environmental factors can also influence body odor, 2-nonanal appears to be responsible for the distinct, slightly musty odor associated with older people. The amount of this compound increases as people grow old.
What causes an “old-person smell”?
The chemical composition of odor-producing molecules changes as we grow old. Other factors that affect how the elderly smell include;
- Body chemistry changes over time. Scientists have figured out that as people age, fatty acid production in the skin increases while antioxidant production decreases. Oxidation of these fatty acids increases the amounts of a chemical called 2-nonanal which has a greasy scent. This greasy scent is what many refer to as “old person smell”.
- Dental dilemma. As we age, the mouth produces less saliva which happens to be the best natural defense against bad breath. That is why dry mouth is so common in older people. Saliva is your best defense against bad breath as it washes out the food particles and bacteria out of the mouth. Unfortunately, gum disease is more common in older people also contributing to bad breath. Dentures and bridges in the teeth can retain fungi and bacteria, leading to infections and musty smell.
- Reduced ability to sense dehydration. Aging affects the ability to sense dehydration. Older people, therefore, tend to drink less water due to their pituitary gland sending weaker signals for thirst. Dehydration then leads to stronger-smelling urine and perspiration. This can cause the skin to have an increased shedding of dry skin and thus develop an odor. When you don’t drink enough water, everything becomes more concentrated and odors come out through pores.
- Increased medications and illness. As we age, the likelihood of taking a prescription is much higher than younger people. Both the increase in medications and the underlying medical condition can affect body odor. Several drugs taken by older people are known to increase perspiration rates such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antidepressants. Medical conditions that affect body odor in older people include kidney disease, liver disease, menopause, hyperthyroidism, schizophrenia, and diabetes.
- Poor personal hygiene. Older people may bathe and change clothes less often. This aversion is because showers seem to take so much work and old people feel like there’s no point. An elderly person may require help from a caregiver, friend or family member to bathe out of fear from falling on a slick bathroom floor, or may experience pain getting into and out of a tub. With not wanting to take baths as often later in life, there are smells that can accumulate.
- Older possessions. Most older people tend to have older belongings meaning their possessions have had time to develop odors. Old stuff gives off the musty odor of age and older people tend to be surrounded by this old stuff. All those old linens, clothes, old books, and papers tend to collect dust and dampness thus giving off that musty smell.
- Sensory decline. The sense of smell in older people declines as they get older. It’s been said that by the time one gets in their 70s, one has lost 75% of their sense of smell. Old people, therefore, literally don’t notice the smell which means that if they don’t keep up with their hygiene, they don’t notice because they can’t smell it.
Getting rid of “old-person smell”
In a healthy individual, increased attention to personal hygiene and also an increase in the quantity of water intake should be enough to address unpleasant odor in older people. However, there are instances where there exists an underlying medical cause resulting in an older person having a truly bad smell. In such cases, therefore, a trip to the doctor and dentist may be in order, along with a review of medications that may affect body odor.
In addition, there are products marketed specifically to address “old-people smell” such as perfume, body wash, lotion, and soap. Increasing the frequency of bathing also minimizes body odor in older people. A good diet also goes a long way in dealing with bad body odor in older people. Meat which oxidizes body fat and intensifies the smell should be avoided. Old people should take light diets and eat more fruits and vegetables. They should take or avoid altogether, fatty foods such as butter and eat more foods containing rich vitamins and antioxidants such as nuts, ginger, and soy.
Family members and caregivers need to go the extra mile and come in to assist the old people in ensuring that their homes and surroundings are clean and free of clutter. Regular monitoring of when and how many times the old people bathe is equally important. Replacement of old clothes and items eliminates the possibility of possessions gathering dust and giving out the odor. Be checking their home for spoiled or expired food and replacing them. Ensure bedding is regularly washed as well as washing clothing after each wearing and airing out shoes. The old people should floss and brush teeth, tongue, and gums daily and follow guidelines for proper care of dentures. Keep a flow of fresh air going through the houses old people live in. Open windows periodically to let clean air in as good ventilation helps prevent stale air from hanging around the house.
Wear cotton clothing so that the skin can breathe easily. Avoiding clothing that is made of synthetic materials. Stress-relieving activities such as yoga or meditation also help to lower the production of the nonenal compound which is highly responsible for body odor.
When to worry?
The compound nonenal isn’t the only thing that can cause changes in how old people smell. Other factors such as dietary changes, medications, and personal hygiene can also impact an older person’s body odor. Although some of these changes are normal, a somewhat different body odor can sometimes be a sign of a medical problem. For example:
- Breath of an older person that smells like ammonia or rotten apples can be a sign of kidney disease.
- A fruit-like smell on an older person’s breath can signal diabetes.
- Pungent urine may indicate a urinary tract infection.
- Changes in the scent that result from neglecting personal hygiene can sometimes indicate the beginnings of dementia.
The older we get, the more nonenal compound our body produces. And, because this compound is small and volatile, it can be found in the air around our skin and easily absorbed into sofa cushions and clothing. All the while, their sense of smell deteriorates, making them less aware that their body is accumulating more and more odor. Body odor naturally changes as you age. No matter the cause, there’s no reason to run away from these changes. The older people may or may not be aware of their special scent. It is therefore important to be sensitive when addressing this issue, especially around their presence. Research suggests that while people recognize older people as smelling different, the “ old-person smell” is actually less intense and less unpleasant than odors from younger people and the middle-aged. This suggests that the smell on its own isn’t bad, but is perceived that way in certain contexts.
Difficulties may be encountered by some older people in following the healthy routines required to keep away body odor if they are dealing with illness or other aging or mobility issues. An older person may, therefore, need assistance, either from a caregiver, family or a professional. And since changes in body odor can indicate health issues, old people should not hesitate to seek help from a healthcare professional when there are concerns. Especially where the body odor keeps getting stronger and you feel it goes beyond normal age-related changes.
For many older people, the possibility of developing an “old-person smell” can be distressing although understanding the underlying causes can help ease any stigma that they may feel. Relatives of caregivers who are around old people with body odor should try to be patient with them since the older person may not even be aware of it because their sense of smell declines with age. Moreover, a few simple steps can reduce the development of age-related body odor. With a positive as well as a proactive approach, worrying about how you smell doesn’t have to interfere with living a fulfilling life as an older person in society.