CARING FOR AGING SKIN:
A GUIDE FOR OLDER ADULTS AND THEIR
The skin is the body's largest organ. It's also the only organ that you can see. Skin serves as attractive packaging material for your body that also protects it from heat, cold, sunlight, air pollution, injuries, and other environmental stresses. The skin is also first to show visible signs of the aging process such as:
- Wrinkles around the eyes and lines on the forehead
- Dry, thin, fragile, itchy, sagging skin
- Thinning hair, baldness
- Rough skin that bruises easily
- Longer healing process
- Decrease in perspiration
These changes in the skin occur in almost everyone as they age and are a normal part of the aging process.
COMMON SKIN DISORDERS IN OLDER ADULTS
Many skin changes are caused by a lifetime of exposure to the sun. Most of these changes are harmless (although unsightly) but others should been seen by a dermatologist, they may be signs of cancer. Common sun-related skin changes include:
- "Liver spots" or "age spots" on the hands and arms are harmless although unattractive. Over-the-counter products are available to make them less visible. They don't need medical attention. Using a sunscreen or avoiding direct sunlight can prevent liver spots from developing.
- Seborrhic keratoses are skin growths often found on the face, chest, shoulders, and back. They develop more often on people with lighter skin and often run in families. Treatment is not usually needed unless they become irritated.
- "Skin tags" or papillomas are raised growths that appear on the face, neck or groin. They are unattractive but harmless, although they can become irritated if clothes rub against them. Because papillomas resemble skin cancers your parent's doctor may refer him or her to a dermatologist for a more thorough examination of these growths. Papillomas can be removed in the office using "cold surgery" a procedure that freezes affected areas with liquid nitrogen, with little discomfort.
- Many older people suffer from dry skin and itching. Common causes of dry skin
are dry air, decreased perspiration, not drinking enough liquids, and smoking.
Diabetes, kidney disease and other disorders can also cause skin to be dry. Using
moisturizers and milder soap can help ease dryness. Taking warm instead of hot
baths or showers will also help especially in winter.
- Wrinkles are common signs of aging. Once wrinkles begin to appear there isn't much that can be done to prevent or erase them. Quitting smoking (if your relative is a smoker) and stopping frowning will keep wrinkles from getting worse.
Encourage your parent to check his or her skin every month for possible signs of cancer. The best time to do a skin exam is before a bath or shower. Standing in front of a full length mirror and using a handheld mirror he or she should look for:
- A sore that doesn't heal
- Any new growth
- A bleeding mole or birthmark
- Moles with irregular borders, changes in shape or size or color
The checkup should also include the scalp and between the toes.
Your parent's primary care doctor may also discover signs of skin cancer during a
routine physical and refer him or her to a dermatologist. Effective treatments are
available especially if the cancer is diagnosed in its early stages.
If your parent agrees, go to the dermatologist appointment with him. You can remind him of questions he may have forgotten and be sure that he understands what the doctor has told him.
PREVENTING SKIN CANCER
Because the most common cause of skin cancer is sun exposure, it can be easily prevented by using a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 and wearing a brimmed hat whenever your older relative is outdoors for any length of time. It's also best to stay out ofthe sun altogether between 10:00 am and 4:00pm when the sun's rays are the strongest.
To encourage an older relative to wear a hat in the sun, buy your older relatives a handsome straw fedora or flowery sunbonnet for that provides lots of protection on sunny days. Caregivers should follow their older relative's example and keep their heads covered when outside in the sun.
THE "SKINNY" ON SKIN CARE
Although older skin is prone to a variety of changes related to the aging process many can avoided or minimized with a few simple lifestyle changes. Caregivers can help older relatives maintain healthy skin by encouraging them to examine their skin regularly, minimize sun exposure, and report any significant changes in the condition of
their skin to their doctor. Many common skin disorders of later life can be cured when diagnosed and treated promptly.
A version of this article appeared in Private Health News.