Many seniors discover that their skin appears to thin over time. This can cause discomfort or even self-consciousness. Our culture focuses a great amount of energy (and money) on hiding the effects of aging for as long as possible. This often means that thinning skin causes more than physical or medical problems; seniors may become anxious, ashamed, or even depressed because of their skin’s appearance. Caregivers and seniors themselves should know how to prevent thinning skin and to take care of the skin as it ages.
What causes thin skin?
Skin naturally thins as it ages. The primary causes of thinning skin are aging and sun exposure, but there are others (discussed below). As we age, our bodies create fewer and fewer cells to replace dead, dying, or injured cells. Seniors, whose cellular reproduction has slowed significantly since their youth, might find their skin becoming less elastic and firm. It may also seem transparent; veins might come through more clearly for some folks, especially those with lighter-toned skin.
Skin also loses the thin layer of fat as we age. Especially for seniors who struggle to maintain or gain weight, losing this layer of fat is normal. This layer of fat, though, helps protect skin and the structures underneath it. Maintaining a healthy weight and a balanced diet–which includes moderate amounts of fats and oils–can help support this healthy layer of fat.
Symptoms and signs
Seniors with thinning skin will not wake up one day and suddenly realize their skin is thinner. The process takes time. For example, they might bruise or sunburn more easily than when they were younger. Bruises or scratches might take longer to heal or bleed more than usual. The risks for seniors with thin skin can be scary but are manageable with prevention and attention.
Thinning skin is also more likely to get infected by germs. Immune responses will be slower, causing infections to spread more quickly and heal more slowly. Seniors and their caregivers should keep a close eye out for cuts or scrapes that could become infected. Regular cleaning and changing of bandages is key to keeping thinning skin healthy and germ-free.
Some seniors might notice a lack of feeling as skin thins. This is normal but can cause some distress. If thinned skin is more likely to become injured and infected, the logic goes, how will the senior know if their skin has been hurt when they can’t feel it? That’s yet another important reason to perform regular checks of skin, including skin not often seen by others. Injuries on a hand or face might be caught quickly and treated; a cut on the upper thigh or underneath a breast might go unnoticed for too long and cause more complications.
A common skin symptom for seniors is actinic purpura, according to a 2017 article in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. While not fatal or emergent, actinic purpura can cause some worry because of its symptoms. This condition causes lesions, often of a dark color, that become more frequent with age. Seniors might experience more anxiety than pain or discomfort with this condition. Treatments focus on improving circulation and supporting the skin’s ability to heal.
How can we prevent thin skin?
Thinning skin is a natural consequence of aging for most people. It cannot be prevented entirely. However, certain habits can help slow the process, and avoiding bad habits can help maintain skin health and thickness.
Habits to help maintain healthy skin include habits that are generally recommended for seniors. They include a balanced diet, exercise,
If you are a senior or a caregiver for a senior, you might want to consider stopping or almost stopping smoking cigarettes. Especially for seniors who formed a smoking habit in their youth, quitting can be a challenge. If they cannot quit entirely, make a plan to lessen the amount and frequency of cigarette smoking.
Heavy drinking, as well, can speed up the process of thinning skin. Some drinking–especially red wine, which has been connected to improved heart health–does not have major side effects for seniors. If a senior in your care enjoys drinking, consider reducing the volume and frequency of their alcohol intake. This may help preserve their skin over time.
Overexposure to UV rays, including tanning beds and tanning in the sun, can also thin skin over time. If a senior in your care enjoys time in the sun, be sure to have sunscreen on hand. Visits to the tanning bed should be lessened or ended entirely. Some sun exposure is healthy, but the skin should be protected, especially once it already shows signs of thinning. Sunburns on thinned skin can be more painful and take longer to heal. They also increase the risk of skin cancers.
In general, a senior should see a dermatologist if there is anything worrying going on with their skin. Some dermatologist specializes in aging skin, or in conditions that might worsen with age. Seniors with autoimmune conditions like psoriasis or eczema, for example, might find that aging causes more frequent symptoms. Previous treatments may work less effectively or need to be changed to accommodate natural aging processes and skin thinning.
How to talk about thinning skin
As mentioned above, thinning skin can cause more than physical symptoms. Seniors can become self-conscious about the appearance or condition of their skin. Along with signs of aging anyone can see, there are important reasons to check areas less often seen. As with many parts of caregiving, asking sensitive questions requires tact, patience, and respect. Here are a few tips for asking a senior potentially difficult questions about their skin:
- Consider asking questions with a doctor (especially a dermatologist) present. Some seniors may be more honest if they know a doctor will be there to help treat any problems they identify.
- Explain the risks of thinning skin. Some seniors may not even know they could lose some feeling in the skin, thus increasing chances of injury and infection.
- Build regular skin checks into a routine. They may not need to check every day, but they might do a cursory look while they get dressed.
- Look at their clothing for discoloration or spots of blood. Even a small cut, one they may not even feel, could be a sign of thinning skin in need of attention. Infections can sometimes cause discoloration of clothing, as well.
- Enlist them in helping identify injuries or bruises. Especially focus on places where skin folds over itself or touches itself often, such as beneath the breasts, between the thighs, or under the arms. Keep these areas, in particular, clean and dry, since they’re more likely to become sweaty and irritated.
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Ceilley, Roger I. “Treatment of Actinic Purpura.” The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, Matrix Medical Communications, June 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5605207/.
Sissons, Claire. “Thin Skin: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 10 May 2018, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321757.php.