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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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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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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Big Questions
What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

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

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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