How can you tell what decade of life someone is in? It's usually by their skin. Does it look unblemished, taught, and plump? Or is it becoming dry, wrinkled, droopy, and thin? In this post, I'll detail the most obvious signs of aging skin. You may be surprised to learn that the effects can be both aesthetic and medical in nature.
In my two previous articles, I discussed:
You learned that your skin is a very complex organ system with many important functions. You were probably shocked to discover that a person starts to age as early as in their mid-twenties. And you understand that both internal and external factors play a role in skin aging.
Now, let's talk about the characteristics of aged skin. How exactly does its function and structure change? What makes your skin appear older over time?
Changes in pigment:
The pigment-containing cells within your skin are called melanocytes. The number of these melanocytes actually decreases with age. However, the remaining melanocytes increase in size. Over time, large pigmented spots (freckles, age/liver spots, or lentigos) may appear in sun-exposed areas. While many believe age spots are harmless, age spots on the skin indicate possible oxidative damage occurring in the internal organs also, so they are indeed a cause for concern.
The pigment-producing melanocytes within the hair follicles in the skin are also subject to aging. This leads to reduced hair growth and grey hair. The melanocytes become dysfunctional and die. It is theorized that age-related greying may actually be a protective mechanism that eliminates defective melanocyte stem cells before they turn cancerous.
Wrinkles are a very common concern. They are caused by degradation and decline in content of the connective tissue fibers (collagen and elastin) within the skin's dermal layer. (Collagen provides structure and strength to your skin. Elastin helps the skin stretch and makes it resilient and spring back into place. Unfortunately, they are both quite fragile.) (Read more about the layers of the skin.)
When wrinkles form, the fibers become cross-linked, slacken, and unravel, which makes collagen look irregular and disorganized in older skin. This reduces the skin's strength, elasticity, and structural support function.
Intrinsic wrinkles are usually fine, shallow, and accentuated near expression lines. Extrinsic wrinkles are found in sun-exposed areas and are also caused by toxin exposures. They appear as both fine and deep wrinkles. Extrinsic aging can be controlled to a great extent by limiting exposure to ultraviolet light and by not smoking. (Read more about extrinsic and intrinsic aging.)
(In my next post HERE, I discuss wrinkles and their cause in much further depth.)
Because of the swift decrease in estrogen in women around menopause, less oil is produced from their sebaceous glands. This can make it harder to keep the skin moist, resulting in dryness and itchiness.
In addition, the water content of the skin is also affected, especially due to falling estrogen and thyroid hormones. With aging, hyaluronic acid (the major water-holding component of the skin) disappears in the outer epidermis layer and only remains in the dermal layer. Hydration is necessary in the skin to prevent dry, rough skin, help the healing process, and keep your skin moist, soft, and full of volume.
Thinning & sagging:
Have you ever seen someone with a "turkey neck" or jowels? The gradual loss of skin elasticity in the skin's dermal layer is what primarily leads to the phenomenon of sagging. Facial bone mass decreases and the underlying subcutaneous fat layer also thins over time, causing sagging skin to appear even more prominent. Aging causes the epidermis to thin, too, even though the number of cell layers remains unchanged. Decreases in collagen & water content also contribute to the thinning effect.
In addition to cosmetic changes, thinned skin is at increased risk of injury. Rubbing or pulling on the skin can cause skin tears. Thinner skin is also less able to sense touch, pressure, vibration, heat, and cold.
Aging causes the blood vessels of the dermis to become much more fragile and break easily. This leads to bruising, bleeding under the skin, spider veins, hematomas, and similar conditions.
Aging skin repairs itself more slowly than younger skin and wound healing may be up to four times slower. This contributes to more skin infections.
More than 90% of all older people have some type of skin disorder. Growths such as skin tags, warts, rough patches, and other blemishes are more common as we age. Sometimes minor nutritional deficiencies, which can be common in older adults, can cause rashes, skin lesions, and other skin changes.
Want to learn much more?
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Jenny Yelle, MHNE Holistic Wellness Educator
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