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Aging Awareness Diet Glossary

Explaining “Old People Smell”

4 months, 3 weeks ago

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Posted on Jun 02, 2020, 4 p.m.

Most people are familiar with that musty, grassy, or even greasy odor that can linger in elder care facilities, or our grandparents' homes; this is often referred to as being “old people smell; and it is widely misunderstood around the globe. 

Often this scent is attributed to one having poor hygiene, but this is not correct in most cases, it is actually an inescapable component of body odor that manifests in elderhood, and the more respectful official term for the smell is nonenal. 

Nonenal has been directly associated with aging, it is a chemical compound that is produced when omega-7 unsaturated fatty acids on the skin are degraded through oxidation, according to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 

In both genders at around the age of 40 the skin will begin to produce more fatty acids and its natural antioxidant defenses begin to deteriorate which can also be contributed to by hormonal changes such as menopause. As the skin grows weaker the natural oils oxidize more quickly producing nonenal, and as it is not water soluble it can remain on the skin even after thorough washing, meaning that the smell can persist on the body and fabrics even in the most extremely clean environments. 

Following a healthy lifestyle can help to minimize nonenal which includes exercising regularly, avoiding stress, not smoking, only drinking in moderation, eating a clean diet, drinking plenty of water, and making sure that you get enough sleep. 

Personal hygiene products and conventional soaps sold within America contain many different deodorants to help eliminate unpleasant odors such as ammonia, trimethylamine, sulfide oxygen, propionin acid, and isovaleric acid, but none of these ingredients have been found to be effective at eliminating or neutralizing nonenal. 

Some Japanese skincare brands claim to have found a botanical combination that is effective against nonenal: green tea and persimmon. Persimmon extracts contain tannins that can help to break down and wash away nonenal, and the antioxidants in green tea are believed to help detoxify the skin which extends the deodorizing effect. The combination of green tea and persimmon can be found in many different forms ranging from soap to fabric spray. 

Practicing good personal hygiene and frequent household cleaning habits with or without the use of specialized products may not be 100% effective against nonenal, but they will help to minimize other odors and prevent health problems. Regularly opening the windows can help to flush out old stale air and bring in fresh air, which is a task that can be difficult for some in the more advanced stages of elderhood. 

The bottom line is that odor is a natural part of the aging process, and no one should be ashamed or embarrassed about it. A few people may find the smell to be a little unpleasant, but the majority of people tend to connect it with very fond memories of their grandparents or even great grandparents. 

It is important to have and promote discussions about age related changes such as nonenal to help minimize the stigma which surrounds much of aging, and to ensure that the public is equipped with as much information as possible that is needed to help them adopt more healthy habits and to seek out the proper care to help them live as happy and healthfully as possible for as long as possible. 

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