The Aging Process
The Natural process of aging is directed by our genes, which control how quickly the normal aging process unfolds. It is a continuous process that normally begins in our mid-20s. Within the skin, collagen production slows, and elastin, the substance that enables skin to snap back into place, has a bit less spring. Dead skin cells do not shed as quickly and turnover of new skin cells may decrease slightly. While these changes usually begin in our 20s, the signs of intrinsic aging are typically not visible for decades. The signs of aging are:
- Fine wrinkles
- Thin and transparent skin
- Loss of underlying fat, leading to hollowed cheeks and eye sockets as well as noticeable loss of firmness on the hands and neck
- Bones shrink away from the skin due to bone loss, which causes sagging skin
- Dry skin that may itch
- Inability to sweat sufficiently to cool the skin
- Graying hair that eventually turns white
- Hair loss
- Unwanted hair
- Nail plate thins, the half moons disappear, and ridges develops
A number of external factors often act together with the normal aging process to prematurely age our skin. Most premature aging is caused by sun exposure. Other external factors that prematurely age our skin are repetitive facial expressions, gravity, sleeping positions, and smoking.
The Sun. Sun exposure over the years causes noticeable changes to the skin, leading to aging. Freckles, age spots, spider veins on the face, rough and leathery skin, fine wrinkles that disappear when stretched, loose skin, a blotchy complexion, actinic keratoses (thick wart-like, rough, reddish patches of skin), and skin cancer can all be traced to sun exposure. The degree of such changes depends on a person’s skin color and history of long-term or intense sun exposure. People with fair skin who have a history of sun exposure develop more signs of photoaging than those with dark skin.
Scientific studies have shown that repeated ultraviolet (UV) exposure breaks down collagen and impairs the synthesis of new collagen. The sun also attacks our elastin. Sun-weakened skin ceases to spring back much earlier than skin protected from UV rays. Skin also becomes loose, wrinkled, and leathery much earlier with unprotected exposure to sunlight.
Facial Expressions. Facial expressions use muscle contractions that lead to wrinkle formation. As skin ages and loses its elasticity, the skin stops springing back to its line-free state, and these wrinkles become permanently etched on the face.
Gravity. Gravity constantly pulls on our bodies. Changes related to gravity become more pronounced as we age. In our 50s, when the skin’s elasticity declines dramatically, the effects of gravity become evident. Gravity causes the tip of the nose to droop, the ears to elongate, the eyelids to fall, jowls to form, and the upper lip to disappear while the lower lip becomes more pronounced.
Sleeping Positions. Resting your face on the pillow in the same way every night for years on end also leads to wrinkles. Called sleep lines, these wrinkles eventually become etched on the surface of the skin and no longer disappear when the head is not resting on the pillow. Women, who tend to sleep on their sides, are most likely to see these lines appear on their chin and cheeks. Men tend to notice these lines on the forehead since they usually sleep with the face pressed face down on the pillow. People who sleep on their backs do not develop these wrinkles since their skin does not lie crumpled against the pillow.
Smoking. Cigarette smoking causes biochemical changes in our bodies that accelerate aging. Research shows that a person who smokes 10 or more cigarettes a day for a minimum of 10 years is statistically more likely to develop deeply wrinkled, leathery skin than a nonsmoker. It also has been shown that people who smoke for a number of years tend to develop an unhealthy yellowish hue to their complexion.
These signs can be greatly diminished, and in some cases avoided, by stopping smoking. Even people who have smoked for many years, or smoked heavily at a younger age, show less facial wrinkling and improved skin tone when they quit smoking.