What is the largest organ of the human body? Did you answer the skin? If you did, great answer!
The skin has many roles. It is water resistant, protects us from infection, helps manage our temperature, contains nerve endings that regulate our sense of touch, and much more.
Like all other organs, changes in the skin naturally occur with age. Also, like other organs, there are steps that contribute to better skin health.
Before discussing these steps, let's look at what the National Institute on Aging identifies as the most common age-related skin conditions.
Thinning skin. With age, skin becomes thinner, loses some of its fat and is less smooth. This means that veins and sometimes bones can be more visible. Thinner skin means that even slight injuries such as bumps, scratches and cuts may take longer to heal.
Dry skin. This can be caused by a variety of sources including dehydration, smoking, increased stress, diabetes, kidney disease and medications. Scratching dry, thin skin may lead to infection.
Wrinkles. Skin looses some elasticity with age, causing wrinkles to appear. But there are other causes of wrinkles, including exposure to the sun and other environmental contaminants.
Age spots. Sometimes called liver spots, age spots are flat, brown spots that are larger than freckles. They are caused by ongoing sun exposure but are harmless.
Skin cancer. Like age spots, the primary cause of skin cancer is the sun. But unlike age spots, skin cancer is harmful. The most common types are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
While the first two are slow moving, the third type can progress quickly, spread to other organs and cause death. The good news is that when caught early, treatment can be very effective.
Now that we know the common age-related skin changes, we will move to the steps that will help maintain skin health. These steps are most effective when followed from a young age. But it's never too late to adopt these behaviors.
Limit sun exposure. This is challenging for those who enjoy the many beach and outdoor activities on Maui. Planning outdoor activities during cooler parts of the day before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. is a smart step.
Wear sunscreen. SPF 15 or higher is recommended with reapplication every two hours, or more frequently if sweating, swimming or rubbing the skin with a towel.
Wear protective clothing. Anything that provides shade is helpful - hats, sunglasses, long-sleeve shirts and long pants. Much athletic wear is now SPF rated, which reduces the need for sunscreen.
Perform a monthly skin check. The acronym ABCDE can help with this check. The letters represent those things to look for: Asymmetry, irregular Borders, Color changes, large Diameter, Evolving size, shape, symmetry or color.
With information overload at our fingertips, it's often challenging to sift through and find good quality information on the Internet. Internet addresses that end in .gov and .edu indicate the source as a government or school/university. Information on these sites are generally research-based and non-biased.
Those ending in .org can be good, for example www.cancer.org is the American Cancer Society. But there are some .org addresses that provide very biased information. Unless the organization is well known and long standing, it's important to do a little research to identify bias and determine whether the group provides information based on quality research.
It can be difficult to identify the accuracy and bias of information on websites ending in .com. Anyone can request such an Internet address. It doesn't mean these sites are all incorrect. In fact, they may be relying on .gov or .edu information. Just be aware that .com information is less reliable than other sources.
The information from this article has been taken primarily from the National Institute on Aging's Age Page publication titled "Skin Care and Aging." NIA has hundreds of short "Age Page" publications as well as long, research publications. Most are free and accessible by electronic or hard copy formats. The NIA website is at www.nia.nih.gov.
* Heather Greenwood is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Intergenerational and Aging Programs. Aging Matters covers topics of interest to the aging Maui community and appears on the third Sunday of each month.