Skin Diseases are Common in Older Adults

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Journal of the American Geriatrics Society Research Summary

As we age, our skin changes in ways that can make it more prone to disease. That’s because older skin is less oily, less elastic, and thinner. It bruises easily and can take a long time to heal when cut.

Although skin disorders are common in older adults, few studies have examined the connection between aging and skin disease. The studies we do have are mostly collected from specific groups of older adults, such as nursing home residents or those who have been treated in hospitals.

However, we do know that two studies of health records for large groups of older adults show that the most common skin diseases in older people are eczema, skin infections, and pruritus (severely dry and itchy skin). Recently, a research team designed a study to learn more about how common skin diseases are in adults aged 70 and older. They published their study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The scientists used information taken from The Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1966, a research program conducted in northern Finland (Oulu and Lapland). Researchers from that study followed 12,058 participants regularly since their birth. The parents of these study participants also served as a subset of the study and participated in separate skin examinations to learn more about skin diseases in older adults

By the end of the skin study, researchers sent a health questionnaire to the parents. Of these, 46 percent responded and some 1200 people who lived in Oulu were invited to participate in the clinical examination. Researchers gave whole-body skin examinations to 552 people.

All areas of the skin including the nails, hair, and scalp were examined during a 20-minute visit. All skin diseases which could be seen during the visit were recorded. Researchers counted all the skin tumors and then examined them more closely with a special instrument called a dermatoscope.

The researchers learned that nearly 76 percent of the participants had at least one skin disease that required treatment or follow-up. Over one-third of the participants had three or more skin diseases, with fungal skin infections being the most common. The researchers reported that almost half the participants had tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) and 30 percent had onychomycosis (nail fungus).

Other skin diseases found during the examinations included:

  • Rosacea, a condition that causes people to blush or flush easily, found in 25 percent of participants.
  • Asteatotic eczema, characterized by dry, itchy, and cracked skin, found in 21 percent.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis, which causes dandruff, found in 10 percent.
  • Nummular eczema, which features coin-shaped itchy, reddened patches, found in 9 percent.
  • Previously undiagnosed actinic keratosis, a precancerous skin lesion, found in 22 percent of the population.

Overall, benign (non-cancerous) skin tumors were the most common skin findings in this study.

To the best of their knowledge, the researchers said that this is the largest study to date in the field of geriatric dermatology to be based on a whole-body skin examination.

The researchers concluded that this study provides new data about skin diseases in older adults. “We learned that dermatological disorders are extremely common in older individuals, and this should be taken into account by physicians treating geriatric patients,” said the researchers. “A whole-body clinical skin examination may reveal hidden skin diseases and can ensure timely diagnoses and appropriate treatment.”

This summary is from “The high prevalence of skin diseases in subjects aged over 70 years.” It appears online ahead of print in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study authors are  Suvi-Päivikki Sinikumpu MD, PhD; Jari Jokelainen, MSc; Anna K. Haarala MD; Maija-Helena Keränen MD; Sirkka Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi MD, PhDd; and Laura Huilaja MD, PhD.

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