WEDNESDAY, May 30 (HealthDay News) -- How old do you think you smell? A new study suggests that humans possess the ability to judge whether a person has reached their senior years just by sniffing their body odor.
People in the study correctly gauged whether the former wearer of an underarm pad was elderly or not just by sniffing it. And for the record, most didn't think "old-people smell" was off-putting at all.
The finding "shows that there's yet another signal hidden in the body odor that we are somehow able to extract and make use of," said study co-author Johan Lundstrom, an assistant professor at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia.
As for the notion that "old-people smell" doesn't leave people as disgusted as you might expect, Lundstrom said the odor's power -- or lack thereof -- appears to have a lot to do with whether the elderly are actually physically present. "Lacking a context, the negativity of the body odors disappear," he said.
The study authors launched their research as part of an effort to better understand the chemical signals that people detect in body odor. Previous research had suggested that we can pick up signs of sickness in other people's body odor and even get a sense of whether someone is related to us, Lundstrom said.
Animals appear to be able to detect age through body odor, he said, although it's not clear why it might matter to them. One theory is that the signal could let other animals know that an animal is older and thus more likely to produce offspring because it's managed to stay alive so long, he said.
In the new study, 56 people -- 20 young (20 to 30 years old), 20 middle-aged (45 to 55), and 16 elderly (75 to 95) -- wore clean T-shirts and underarm pads while sleeping. The pads soaked up a sample of each individual's body odor.
The researchers then asked 41 young people to smell the resulting
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