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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  A Few Clouds
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What do old people smell like?

I recently received a present in the mail from a great-aunt of mine, and along with the lovely afghan she was handing over to me was this not-so-faint odor that I totally associate with her. I'm not sure how to describe it, but it's kind of like old dead flowers. And although I rather like it, since it reminds me of her, my husband hates it. In fact, he's insisted I hang the afghan on the clothesline for a few days to get rid of that "old people smell." Personally, I would prefer to leave it just as it is. What do you think? And do you think old people actually smell old? Or are the smells we associate with them something else altogether? My great-aunt just turned 86.

Family Air Looms

Family Air Looms: First of all, congratulations to your great-aunt for making it through 86 whole years. I hope she smells every last day of them! And I hope that she's still able to practice good hygiene so that the smells you associate with her continue to be sweet rather than sour. Hygiene plays the largest role in the way we smell, of course. Left to its own devices, a baby will smell like crap in no time. And older people, for various reasons, aren't always able and/or willing to practice good hygiene. Maybe they have trouble getting in and out of the shower. Maybe they're tired and would just like to rest a while. Or maybe their sense of smell isn't what it used to be, so they don't pick up on what the rest of us are picking up on. Alternatively, they may slather on the perfume, no longer aware that a little goes a long way. I like to call this "l'eau de grand-mère."

And I suspect the scent you're noticing is "l'eau de grand-tante." For what is perfume, after it's hung around a while, if not old dead flowers? On the other hand, your great-aunt's particular aroma could be a combination of any number of things. Diet and exercise, medications, stress levels - they all play a role in the way we smell. What you're asking, though, is whether age plays a role. Do we smell different, depending on how old we are? And the answer is: probably. Certainly, our hormonal balances shift throughout our life cycles. (If you ask me, there's nothing riper than a teenager.) But there hasn't really been that much research in this area, and most of the research that's been done has been done by the cosmetics industry. That's like asking Chicken Little to predict the weather, especially if he has a financial stake in the outcome.

Back in the late '90s, a Japanese cosmetics firm "discovered" the source of body odor. Apparently, it's a fatty acid called palmitoleic acid, which we release more and more of as we get older. Before 30, you'd hardly notice it's there. After 40, levels rise sharply. And once you're in your seventies, you might as well hand out scratch 'n' sniff cards. But have no fear, Shiseido is here with a range of products - shampoos, lotions, powders - to chemically block the smell. And who knows, maybe they work. What I do know is that the products come with the kind of quack...excuse me, quasi-scientific support that the beauty industry is world-renowned for. But why are we trying to block what are perfectly natural smells in the first place? How we smell is like our signature. It says who we are. And we are...people who smell.

As for you, Family Air Looms, if "l'eau de grand-tante" is really one of your favorite fragrances, I'd ask your husband to make an exception in this case, and hold both his nose and his tongue.

To help me with my morning tongue bath, write to: MR. RIGHT, ISTHMUS, 101 KING ST., MADISON, WI 53703. OR CALL 251-1206, EXT. 152. OR E-MAIL MRRIGHT@ISTHMUS.COM.

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