You know how when things get old, they begin to smell a little? I think that’s starting to happen to me. Don’t worry, I still bathe and buy deodorant, but if I go just one extra day without washing my hair, at some point during the day while getting into my car or throwing my purse over my shoulder at the grocery, I will catch a whiff of that subtle scent; the one that tells you, “you-should-have-definitely-taken-the-time-to-shampoo-this-morning.” I duck and head toward the closest door and hope there is not a cloud swirling about my head a là Pig Pen in the Peanuts comic strip. The one that makes everyone take a few steps away from you.
Many years ago, one of my girlfriends fixed me up on a date with a man who was about ten years older than me. Going out with an older man didn’t bother me . . . until we sat next to each other all night at a bar. It wasn’t the smoke, or the spilled beer or all the forlorn ladies doused with cheap perfume that got to me. It was this man’s smell. Not bad, not good, just . . . present. A pervasive scent of what I decided was bachelorhood; flannel shirts that needed to be washed more frequently than say, once a month.
It makes sense doesn’t it? At some point it’s not worth washing those bath towels anymore because they’re old and they smell. Off you go to Target for a couple of brand new sets to hang in the bathroom. (We’ll talk about how you don’t walk out of Target with only bath towels another time.) This happens to everything that gets old; clothing, food, furniture, shoes, buildings. Everything that gets old smells. Why not people?
You think I’m trying to be funny, but there is Science to prove it. It seems that the scent of older folks is as tied to our biological origins as the sex drive and the fight or flight reflex. From a study by Johan Lundström of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, humans may be able to recognize age by odor as a way "to distinguish the sick from the healthy—not overt sickness, but underlying cell decay," he says. "The older we get, the more natural decay we have."
See that? He actually said “decay.” Like when you’re walking through the park in October, taking a deep breath and thinking, “Ah, the smell of Fall!” but what you’re really smelling is decay. Those beautiful orange, yellow and red leaves are dying and we can smell it.
We humans don’t have nearly the highly developed nostrils that dogs, horses and other animals have, but we do pick up important information from our noses. Am I right, mothers? Do we know practically to the teaspoon how much beer our kids drank as they propel themselves through the door late on a Friday night? We ground with confidence. But not only mothers; women all over the world use their noses to divine the who, what, how and where of any given excuse. Men do not have this faculty; as soon as you ask, “Can you smell that?”, the male of the species shrugs his shoulders and says, “What rotting bananas?”
It is slightly discouraging to realize that my body, it’s cells and pores could be in a state of decay. But, as I said it makes sense. (Scents?) These days, those of us 50ish and over have the opportunity to be in the best shape of our lives. I had lunch with a sixty-something woman recently who said she felt the best she’s ever felt after using a nutritionist to lose 42 pounds and learn how to drink more water. Another sixty-ish friend sat at my kitchen table and practically glowed from her recent two-week hiking vacation, even though we were Googling our recently prescribed prescriptions. We may be decaying . . . and smelling . . . but we can be healthy and look good doing it. And if I forget to wash my hair one day, I can always go hang out with a bunch of old guys.