As we age, the organs in our bodies undergo a metamorphosis – years of use and overworking causes sometimes dramatic changes to the liver, pancreas, heart, brain and, since it is also an organ, the skin.
As children, the skin is typically smooth and blemish-free. When we move into our teens, we experience a vast array of different skin conditions, including anything from a few pimples to full-on, diagnosed acne. But older adults, specifically those over the age of 50, experience a whole new range of skin conditions as the body ages.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), “with aging, the outer skin layer (epidermis) thins, even though the number of cell layers remains unchanged.” Pigment-containing cells decrease, while the “remaining melanocytes increase in size.” This makes an aging adult’s skin appear thin, pale and translucent, almost see-through. Age-spots, or liver spots, also can appear on the skin when it is exposed to sun.
As the skin becomes thin, blood vessels underneath that are normally protected by a cushion of thick, hydrated skin, are exposed to more trauma. Cherry angiomas, or bruising and bleeding under the skin, can occur if the skin is hit or scraped against a surface or protrusion. If this occurs, there are medications that can help – talk to your doctor to see if these are right for you.
As we age, our skin also produces less oils – typically women experience this more acutely than men, and often much earlier. Less oil means dryer skin, which can cause a flaky appearance. This decrease in oil production is due to shrinkage of the sebaceous glands, which produce the oils that help keep our skin hydrated and our hair shiny.
In an article published in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science (DUJS) in 2013, reports that, in women, menopause causes “a decrease in estrogen levels, leaving the skin drier, thinner, more sensitive and less toned.”
Exposure to free radicals overtime creates chemical changes in the body – this applies to the skin as well. DUJS states that “when electrons are pulled from other molecules, chemical structures and biological functions are altered,” meaning our bodies can no longer repair as well as they used to.
“Glucose…presents another threat. It forms plastic-like molecules…that hurt skin proteins by causing them to be more brittle and less elastic.” The journal states that our bodies can do some repair, but the best way to maintain healthier skin is prevention.
“An SPF of at least 35 is necessary for sun protection against UVA and UVB. After the age of 25, it is recommended to use an anti-aging cream with a vitamin A derivative.”
Common conditions of aging skin
The aging skin can play host to a multitude of conditions in conjunction with those above. The Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education lists several conditions, including pruritis, dermatitis, varicose veins, and ulcers.
- Pruritis: a common skin condition occurring in peoples of advanced age. Can appear in those with chronic renal or hepatic insufficiency, anemia, thyroid disease, diabetes, or underlying malignancy. Is accompanied by an itching sensation and sometimes a rash. Treatment can include an antihistamine and emollients.
- Dermatitis: otherwise known as eczema, this is a common cause of pruritis. However, in older adults, eczema is caused by chronic dry skin, especially in the dry winter months. Treatment for dermatitis includes minimizing exposure to hot baths, avoiding harsh soaps and scrubbing motions, and liberal hydration with creams and emollients. Other treatments include topical corticosteroids.
- Varicose veins: commonly occur when oxygen supply to the veins is cut off for a period of time. It usually appears as torturous vascular channels on calves and thighs. There are several ways of treating varicose veins, including laser treatments and sclerotherapy.
- Ulcers: these include bed sores and pressure sores. They typically occur in hospitalized or bedridden patients, and can affect underlying skin, muscle, connective tissue, cartilage and bone. Treatment may include surgery, but less invasive ways of treating ulcers are to rotate the patient in bed every 2 hours to distribute the weight, and an adequate diet with vitamin supplementation.
Taking care of aging skin can be a challenge, but with the appropriate information, the golden years can be a wonderful time of life. If you have concerns for yourself or a parent or loved one about aging skin conditions, always consult a physician.