Life span changes in the verbal categorization of odors

J Gerontol. 1993 Mar;48(2):P49-53. doi: 10.1093/geronj/48.2.p49.


An odor description task was used to explore age-related change in odor perception based on 1.19 million U.S. and Canadian respondents (ages 10-90 years) to the National Geographic Smell Survey. Respondents sampled six microencapsulated odorants and selected 1 of 11 descriptors to characterize each smell. Four odors were characterized by strong consensus endorsement of a single descriptor. This consensus weakened with advancing age, and nonmodal descriptors were endorsed more frequently. Nonmodal responses were neither randomly selected, nor systematically biased across odors. Rather, they showed odor-specific patterns of change. Together, these results suggest a marked change in odor categorization across the life span. Odor descriptor profiles were used to generate age-specific multidimensional scaling maps. Stimulus configurations were stable from the third through fifth decades. Those from the sixth through ninth decades showed major displacements for two odors, and suggest that the sweet dimension of odor quality may be particularly variable with maturation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Androstenes / chemistry
  • Benzopyrans / chemistry
  • Child
  • Eugenol / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Odorants
  • Olfaction Disorders / physiopathology
  • Pentanols / chemistry
  • Perfume / chemistry
  • Plants, Medicinal
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds / chemistry


  • Androstenes
  • Benzopyrans
  • Pentanols
  • Perfume
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds
  • galaxolide
  • androst-16-en-3-one
  • Eugenol
  • isoamyl acetate