The skin is the body’s largest organ, and because it is the most visible, it usually gets the most attention. Like every other part of us, our skin changes as we grow older, but nothing shows the signs of aging as much, perhaps with the exception of graying hair.
In fact, we routinely judge not only a person’s age but also general state of health and vitality by the appearance of his or her skin.
“The first sign of wrinkles strikes terror into the hearts of many people,” says Dr. Leonard Hayflick, professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “How and Why We Age” (Ballantine Books, 1994). This, he says, is not because skin wrinkles are a disease – “no one dies of old skin” – but rather because of society’s obsession with youth and devaluation of old age.
Besides wrinkling, aging skin is associated with discoloring, thinning, dryness, and lessening ability to heal from wounds. But these are not inevitable characteristics, according to Dr. Hayflick.
“Most skin lesions afflicting the elderly are preventable,” he says. “With few exceptions, they are not the result of normal aging but represent an accumulation of environmental insults.”
For example, exposure to sunlight is considered a major cause of skin damage (photoaging), especially for fair-skinned people. But so are air pollution and smoking.
Besides environmental assaults, some scientists believe that skin wrinkles may also be caused by an age-related loss of a protein called “collagen” and/or an overgrowth of another protein known as “elastin,” which seems to take place in both sun-damaged and aging skin.
Other possible causes are habitual facial expressions like frowning or laughter, or how someone sleeps at night, resulting in imprints and creases.
But there can be hidden, more serious health issues at play as well. Studies have shown that elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, and heart disease can leave their mark on the body’s surface. For instance, velvety brownish patches can be a sign of diabetes; dull, dry skin can come from nutritional deficiencies, including lack of certain vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids.
Fortunately, there are a number of steps one can take to mitigate skin degeneration. In addition to avoiding excessive exposure to sun light (or UV rays in tanning studios), and applying sunscreen before going outside, experts recommend eating certain foods that are deemed especially helpful for preserving healthy skin.
Generally speaking, any balanced diet regimen is good for the skin, as it is for all organs. One of the most important nutrients for skin health is vitamin A, which is found in dairy products like yogurt and cheese. For obvious reasons, it is advisable to stick to low-fat versions and to keep serving sizes in check. Also, beta-carotene, richly present in carrots, sweet potatoes, yams, and dark, leafy greens, adds to the package.
Fruits and vegetables in general are always good choices, and for multiple reasons, among them their high content in antioxidants and phytochemicals. These are chemical compounds able to fight so-called “free radicals,” which are molecules known to attack cells and believed to contribute to aging. Especially berries seem to have high antioxidant capacities.
Essential fatty acids are considered skin-friendly nutrients as they can help protect cell membranes. They are found in numerous sources, including fish (especially salmon and herring), walnuts, flax seed, and canola oil. Most oils are beneficial for the skin, but be sure to use them sparingly because of their relatively high calorie content.
The mineral selenium seems to play a crucial role in the healing process of damaged skin. It is present in a variety of foods, including whole-wheat breads and cereals, turkey, tuna, and some nuts.
But nothing is more important for healthy skin than sufficient hydration. Water is the obvious choice. Green tea is also thought of as a beneficial beverage because of its anti-inflammatory properties (polyphenols).
Lastly, it deserves to be mentioned that too little exposure to the sun can cause problems of its own, specifically a deficiency in vitamin D. If your lifestyle keeps you indoors most of the time, or if you live in an area with few sunny days (as I do), you may want to consider taking a supplement – just to be safe.
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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).