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Skin Conditions in the Elderly

As we get older, our skin undergoes a number of changes. How skin ages will depend on several factors: your lifestyle, diet, heredity, and other personal habits (such as smoking).

Sun exposure is the main cause of skin damage. Skin damage from the sun is due to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) light, which breaks down elastic tissue (elastin) in the skin and causes the skin to stretch, sag, wrinkle, and become blotchy, occasionally with pre-cancerous growths and even skin cancer.

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Other factors contributing to skin aging include the loss of fatty tissue between your skin and muscle (subcutaneous support), stress, gravity, daily facial movement (smiling and frowning, for example), and obesity.

Skin changes that accompany aging include:

  • Roughened or dry skin
  • Benign growths such as seborrheic keratoses and cherry angiomas
  • Loose facial skin, especially around the eyes, cheeks, and jowls (jawline)
  • Transparent or thinned skin
  • Bruising easily from decreased elasticity

Common Skin Conditions in the Elderly

  • Wrinkles: Wrinkles are the most visible sign of aging skin. They follow chronic sun exposure and form when the skin loses its flexibility. Smokers tend to have more wrinkles than nonsmokers.
  • Facial movement lines: These lines (often known as "laugh lines" and "worry lines") become more visible as the skin loses its elasticity (in your 40's or 50's). The lines may be horizontal on the forehead, vertical above the nose, or curved on the temples, upper cheeks, and around the mouth and eyes.
  • Dry and itching skin: Dry, flaking skin is a common problem among adults, especially the elderly. The loss of oil glands (which help to keep the skin soft) is the main cause of dry skin. Rarely, dry, itchy skin may be a sign of diabetes, kidney disease, or liver disease.
  • Skin cancer: Sun exposure (UV radiation) is the most common cause of pre-cancers and skin cancer, either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma. Many Americans (a million each year) will develop a skin cancer by age 65.
  • Age spots: "Age spots" are brown patches that appear on sun-exposed parts of the body (face, hands, and forearms), usually during the adult years.
  • Bedsores: Bedsores (also known as pressure ulcers) are skin ulcers that develop from pressure when people lie in bed or sit in a chair for long periods of time. Bedsores are a fairly common problem in elderly people who have difficulty moving on their own. People with diabetes are more prone to bedsores because of their poor circulation and decreased feeling in their skin. Frequent rotation or re-positioning helps to prevent bedsores.

How Are Skin Conditions Treated in the Elderly?

  • Wrinkles: Wrinkles can't be "cured," but their appearance can be "softened" through the use of tretinoin (Renova), especially in wrinkles caused by sun damage.
  • Dry skin: The best treatment for dry skin is to lubricate, via the regular use of over-the-counter lotions. Moisturizers help to hydrate (trap moisture) the skin. Humidifiers also help to hydrate the skin. Frequent bathing can aggravate dry skin.
  • Skin cancer: A "changing mole" or new skin growth deserves evaluation by a dermatologist, perhaps with a biopsy if skin cancer is a concern.

Can These Skin Conditions Be Prevented?

Nothing can undo sun damage, but the skin can occasionally repair itself. Here are some tips to help keep skin healthy.

  • Use sunscreen when outdoors. Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more provides the most protection.
  • Wear a hat, long sleeves and pants when outdoors and sunglasses that block UV rays.
  • Avoid the use of tanning booths and sunlamps.
  • Examine yourself regularly for "changing moles" and new growths.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Norman Levine, MD on July 12, 2012

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