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What Causes “Old Person Smell”?

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Reader Sarah writes in to ask, “What is it that causes that distinctive 'old person' smell? Whatever it is, it seems to be common to all elderly people. Is it inevitable or is there something you can do to avoid it?”

Ever notice that your grandparents and their house had a dull, kind of sweet stink to them? You’re not alone. Old people really do have a chemically-distinct odor.

Like other body odors, this “old person smell” is produced when chemicals from the skin glands get broken down into small odorous molecules that waft away into the air. The specific chemical that gives old folks their unique odor, scientists suspect, is a compound called 2-nonenal. Created by the oxidative breakdown of other chemicals over time, it produces what’s described as an “unpleasant greasy and grassy odor” in people and is also responsible for some of the “cardboard” flavor of stale beer.

In 2000, Japanese researchers found that people’s concentration of 2-nonenal increased with age. They had 22 people, ranging in age from 26 to 75, wear odor-collecting shirts to bed for a few nights and then analyzed the molecules that adhered to the cloth. They found more 2-nonenal in the shirts worn by people over 40 years old than they did in the younger subjects. And in the over-40 crowd, the concentration of 2-nonenal increased significantly with age, with the oldest subject producing almost three times as much as the middle-aged subjects. 

The researchers didn’t see any other odor compound increase with age like that, and think that the “deterioration of body odors” in the elderly, as they politely put it, can be pinned on 2-nonenal. But why does the compound increase as a person ages? The researchers also noted the presence of more omega-7 unsaturated fatty acids in the shirts worn by the older subjects, and think that the 2-nonenal comes from the breakdown of these fatty acid chains. The reason the fatty acids increase with age, meanwhile, is still unclear. The researchers speculate that it might be because of age-related changes to metabolism or changes in the amount of some other chemical in skin secretions.

Another big question still hanging in the air is what purpose, if any, an age-related change in smell serves. Humans and some non-human animals can tell the difference between older and younger individuals by smell, and some animals are known to be more attracted to the odor of older individuals and have more success mating as they age. One possible explanation for this is that older individuals may have some genetic advantage that allowed them to survive longer and makes them more attractive mates, and that distinct age-related odor is an advertisement for their genetic quality. It’s not clear that this is what actually happens, but if it is, it’s hard to imagine smell having much of an effect with humans when we place such high value on the physical attractiveness and other qualities of youth.

The fact that old person smell is usually thought of as unpleasant doesn’t seem to be a stumbling block here, though. Research subjects who didn’t know the source of the smell rated old person odors as less intense and less unpleasant than odors from younger people—suggesting that the smell on its own isn’t bad, but is perceived that way in certain contexts.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Love to Dig?
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Dog owners with green thumbs beware: It's likely just a matter of time before Fido turns your azalea bed into a graveyard of forgotten chew toys. When dogs aren't digging up your prized garden, they can be found digging elsewhere in your yard, at the beach, and even between your couch cushions at home. But what exactly is behind your dog's drive to turn every soft surface he or she sees into an excavation site?

According to Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, this behavior is completely normal. "When people say 'why do dogs dig,' the first thing that always comes to mind is 'well, because they're dogs,'" she tells Mental Floss. The instinct first appeared in dogs' wolf ancestors, then it was amplified in certain breeds through artificial selection. That's why dogs that were bred to hunt rodents, like beagles and terriers, are especially compelled to dig in places where such animals might make their homes.

But this tendency isn't limited to just a few specific breeds. No matter their original roles, dogs of all breeds have been known to kick up some dirt on occasion. Beyond predatory urges, Dr. Grigg says there are two main reasons a dog may want to dig. The first is to cool off on a hot day. When stuck on an open lawn with little to no shade, unearthing a fresh layer of dirt untouched by the sun is a quick way to beat the heat.

The second reason is to stash away goodies. Imagine your dog gets bored with chewing his favorite bone but knows he wants to come back for it later. Instead of leaving it out in the open where anyone can snatch it up, he decides to bury it in a secret place where only he'll be able to find it. Whether or not he'll actually go back for it is a different story. "There's a disconnect with modern dogs: They know the burying part but they don't always know to dig it up," Dr. Grigg says.

Because digging is part of a dog's DNA, punishing your pet for doing so isn't super effective. But that doesn't mean you should stand idly by as your yard gets turned inside-out. When faced with this behavior in your own dog, one option is to redirect it. This can mean allowing him to dig in a designated corner of the yard while keeping other parts off-limits, or setting up a raised flowerbed or sandbox especially to satisfy that urge. "You can get him interested in the area by burying a couple bones or some interesting things in there for him to dig," Dr. Grigg says. "I like the idea of buried treasure."

If your dog's motive for digging is more destructive than practical, he may have an energy problem. Dogs require a certain amount of stimulation each day, and when their humans don't provide it for them they find their own ways to occupy themselves. Sometimes it's by chewing up shoes, toppling trash cans, or digging ditches the perfect size for twisting ankles. Fortunately, this is nothing more walks and playtime can't improve.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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