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Skin-Deep Advice For Better Senior Health

Skin, our body’s largest organ, clearly shows the effects of aging.

How much our skin and wrinkles betray our age depends a lot on our genes as well as our lifestyle, such as smoking, diet, physical activity and how well we protect our skin from the sun. Even in our later years, lifestyle can help us improve our skin health, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Although good lifestyle practices cannot reverse the aging process, they can slow and ease the effects, even if we may not have been as careful as we should have been in our younger years.

The following is a summary of common skin conditions seniors face and how to alleviate their effects:

Senior Dry Skin

A number of factors contribute to dry, flaky skin:

  • Not drinking enough liquids
  • Lack of protection from the sun
  • Dry air
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Loss of sweat and oil glands that occurs naturally with aging
  • Health problems, such as diabetes, kidney and liver disease

Dry skin can be managed by taking fewer baths and using warm water and milder soap or a soap substitute, recommends the AAD. Hot water and overuse of soap dries out skin. Moisturizers applied immediately after a bath, while the skin is still damp, seal in moisture. Avoid adding oils to bath water as they can make a tub dangerously slippery.

If dry skin persists, consult your doctor. Severe flaky, itchy, and cracked skin may indicate a more serious problem. Itching may also indicate increased sensitivity to soaps, fabric preservatives, wool, plastics, detergents, bleaches and other irritants.

Senior Tissue Breakdown

With age, skin naturally becomes thinner and loses its elasticity. Scratches and cuts take longer to heal. Loss of fat and connective tissue weakens support around blood vessels and makes skin more susceptible to bruising.

Some medicines or illnesses can contribute to bruising. Seniors should see their doctor to evaluate unexplained bruising, especially on parts of the body usually covered by clothing.

Years of sun exposure, which breaks down the skin’s elastic tissues, is a major contributor to this kind of skin damage, along with wrinkles, age spots, dryness and even cancer. But the AAD says that even for seniors whose skin has already been damaged by the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it is not too late to practice sun protection.

The “Skin Care and Aging” page of the National Institute on Aging Web site (www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/skin.htm) recommends:

  • Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., even on cloudy days
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) number of 15 or higher.
  • Wear protective clothing—a wide brim hat, sunglasses and loose, lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and long pants or long skirts
  • Do not use sunlamps or tanning beds

Smoking also accelerates aging of skin. The AAD reports that even people who have smoked for years have improved skin tone and lessened facial wrinkling when they quit smoking.

Varicose Ulcers in Seniors

Poor blood flow—related to a variety of health conditions such as diabetes, arteriosclerosis, hypertension and smoking—may contribute to slow healing of cracks or cuts in the skin of seniors’ legs. This can lead to varicose ulcers, which can become infected. These can be healed with careful management and special dressings.

Senior Bedsores

Seniors who are bedridden, use a wheelchair or are unable to change position are most at risk of developing bedsores, which also are known as pressure ulcers or decubitus ulcers. These skin ulcers result from constant blood-restricting pressure of bones against skin, primarily in the ankles, elbows, back, hips and heels. Those with diabetes are at particular risk because of poor circulation.

Pressure sores can cause serious infections. In some cases, they can be life-threatening. However, the risk of developing pressure sores can be reduced by:

  • Keeping skin clean and dry
  • Changing the senior’s position every two hours
  • Using pillows and products that relieve pressure

Early medical intervention is critical as advanced bedsores are slow to heal.

For more information, visit the Mature Skin section of the American Academy of Dermatologists Web site,www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/sun_mature.html.

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