En español | If you have wrinkles, you don't need to be told the skin – the body's protective outer layer – is susceptible to the effects of aging. For older adults, however, intrinsic and extrinsic changes in the skin make it more prone to disease. In fact, a recent study found 75.7 percent of adults 70 and older have at least one skin condition – and 39.1 percent have at least three simultaneously – requiring treatment either at home (43 percent) or by a physician (57 percent).
Published in JAGS (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society), the study categorized the prevalence and types of skin ailments among 552 adults, ages 70 to 93, from the general population in Finland. The researchers recommend whole-body skin examinations as a way “to reveal hidden cutaneous symptoms and it ensures timely diagnoses and appropriate treatment."
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Because most study subjects were fair-skinned, the results may not accurately reflect what would be found in the more racially and ethnically diverse older-adult population in the United States. The study also noted differences in the prevalence of skin diseases between the sexes. The study included 346 women and 206 men. Men had higher proportions of fungal skin infections and women had more benign tumors.
The good news is that the five most common conditions affecting people 70 and older don't necessarily need medical attention.
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1. Seborrheic Keratosis (78 percent)
A common noncancerous skin condition, seborrheic keratosis are wart-like growths that often appear on the face, chest, shoulders or back. Typically, they are slightly elevated from the skin surface and appear as waxy brown, black or tan growths. No treatment is necessary, but if the seborrheic keratosis causes irritation, it can be removed by a doctor. Also, see your doctor if you notice suspicious changes in your skin, such as sores or growths that grow rapidly, bleed and don't heal. These could be signs of skin cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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2. Lentigo Senilis (69 percent)
Older adults, people with fair skin and people who have spent lots of time in the sun are most prone to lentigo senilis, more commonly known as liver spots. They appear as flat tan, brown or black spots most often on the face, hands, shoulders and arms. It is important, however, for your doctor to distinguish between an age spot and other conditions such as lentigo maligna, a type of skin cancer. Liver spots are harmless and don’t need treatment. In some cases, prescription creams and procedures can remove them or make them less noticeable, according to the Mayo Clinic.
3. Cherry Angiomas (63 percent)
Cherry angiomas are noncancerous skin growths made up of blood vessels that give them a reddish appearance. Also known as senile angiomas or Campbell de Morgan spots, they are fairly common skin growths that vary in size from a pinhead to a quarter inch in diameter, and usually show up after age 30. Some cherry angiomas appear smooth and even with your skin, while others appear slightly raised. They can bleed if scratched, rubbed or cut open. Talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in appearance, according to Mount Sinai Health System.
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4. Melanocytic Nevi (50 percent)
Also known as moles, melanocytic nevi are small, pigmented spots on the skin that usually appear during childhood or adolescence. Numbers of moles vary by person from a handful to hundreds. Typically, they have clear-cut edges and are uniform in color. They can darken or enlarge during adolescence or pregnancy. Most moles are harmless, but they can, on rare occasion, become cancerous. So it is important to monitor them – and see a dermatologist – if they get larger suddenly, develop an irregular border, become darker or inflamed, show spotty color changes, begin to bleed, crack or itch, or become painful, according to Harvard Medical School.
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5. Tinea Pedis (48 percent)
Tinea pedis, or athlete's foot, is a common foot infection caused by fungi called dermatophytes that thrive in warm, moist environments. Symptoms include itchy feet, cracked, blistered or peeling skin between the toes, or redness and scaling on the soles. The infection can also spread to the toenails, turning them thick and cloudy yellow. (Onychomycosis, or nail fungus, was found in 29.9 percent of the older adults.) It can take months for athlete's foot to respond to treatment, and once exposed it's easy for the fungus to return. Over-the-counter antifungal medications are recommended. If those don't work, talk to your doctor. People with diabetes easily get skin infections, so they should see a doctor as soon as anything unusual appears on their feet, according to Harvard Medical School.
Other skin conditions
The study found a variety of other skin conditions among older adults including actinic keratosis (found in 23 percent of older adults). The skin disease is distinguished by a rough, scaly patch of skin that slowly develops from years of sun exposure on the face, lips, ears, back of hands, forearms, scalp and neck. With time the spots or patches may become hard with a wartlike surface, and a small percentage can become skin cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. They also found asteatotic eczema, or very dry skin, in 20.8 percent of older adults. It was more common among women. And the study found 25.6 percent of the adults had rosacea, a condition that causes redness and visible blood vessels on the face. It is more common among fair-skinned women. The skin condition can be mistaken for acne, other skin problems or natural ruddiness. The cause is unknown, but it could be due to a combination of hereditary and environmental factors, according to the Mayo Clinic.