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You wake up after a night out, look in the mirror, and are shocked by what you see. It feels like your skin has creased into wrinkles overnight, your once-thick hair is looking thin around the temples and on top, and sure enough, there are more than a couple of greys in what’s left. It sounds like a curse from a fairy-tale witch, and you may chalk it up to a really bad hangover, but it just might be premature aging.
- Aging is a natural process, but a range of environmental factors can speed it up.
- Premature aging can affect both your appearance and your health.
- Common visible signs of premature aging include fine lines, wrinkles, hair loss, and age spots that appear before your late 20s or early 30s.
- Treatments are available for many of the physical signs of premature aging.
What is premature aging, and what does it look like?
The only difference between standard aging and premature aging is the timeline. For most people, fine lines and wrinkles begin to show up in our late 20s to early 30s, but this can occur even earlier for people experiencing premature aging. This carries over to any part of the aging process. Premature aging is when the signs of aging occur earlier than is standard. More scientifically, premature aging happens when a person’s biological age is older than their chronological age.
Signs and symptoms of premature aging
Although fine lines, wrinkles, and grey hair are generally the first things that come to mind when we talk about aging, this also includes the formation of sunspots (also called liver spots or age spots), dry or itchy skin, sagging skin, sunken cheeks or temples, hair loss, and hyperpigmentation around the chest. Aging itself ultimately results from the shortening of our telomeres, which are essentially caps at the end of our DNA strands that protect our DNA from damage. As we age, the telomeres get shorter and shorter, eventually leaving our DNA exposed to damage, and as DNA damage occurs, signs of aging emerge (Shammas, 2011).
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But this phenomenon doesn’t just affect our appearance. When telomere length gets short enough, signs of aging appear—and disease is a sign of aging. Past research has connected faster rates of telomere shortening to age-related health concerns such as coronary heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, increased cancer risk, and osteoporosis (Shammas, 2011). You may not be able to spot these things in the mirror, but your healthcare provider may start to see signs—earlier than anticipated—at your annual physical.
Causes of premature aging
Since telomere shortening happens as we age, the rate at which these caps on our DNA shorten predicts our aging speed. As with many biological conditions, genetics plays a role in how quickly we age. But certain lifestyle factors can speed up the rate at which telomere shorten and, therefore, the rate at which we age or develop visible signs of aging. Research has found that telomere length is associated not only with genetics and our environment but also with our social and economic status, body weight, and exercise, and smoking habits (Shammas, 2011).
At this point, there’s no denying the dangers of smoking. But it’s worth knowing that the habit has also been tied directly to accelerated aging in several ways. “Studies show that smoking can activate enzymes that break down the elasticity of your skin,” cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green explains. And further research has found a connection between smoking and hair loss (Trüeb, 2003). When it comes to our skin, sun exposure is the biggest external factor in aging. In fact, roughly 80% of facial skin aging is due to sun damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays (Shanbhag, 2019).
Though those are the biggest culprits, aging can be sped up by other factors. Researchers found that just one night of not getting enough sleep, for example, activates pathways that speed up biological aging in humans (AASM, 2018).
Although we have yet to pin down any exact diet that slows down aging, we do know that some micronutrients help to counter cellular damage that can contribute to the aging process. One of the metabolic processes that speeds aging is known as oxidative stress, which happens when the body has elevated levels of compounds called reactive oxygen species (ROS).
These substances, also known as free radicals, may damage lipids, proteins, and even DNA in our bodies (Schieber, 2014). But ROS are only harmful when they’re not balanced by antioxidants, which is why a diet rich in micronutrients, including fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants, may help slow the aging process.
Treatment of premature aging
The first line of treatment, whether you’re concerned about internal or external premature aging, is to limit behaviors that are known to accelerate the process. That means adopting healthy habits we all hear time and again, like giving up smoking to prevent DNA damage, exercising enough, and eating a healthy diet to correct nutritional deficiencies and boost our intake of antioxidants that can help counter oxidative damage. But many of the outward physical signs of premature aging can now also be addressed with targeted treatments.
Skin sagging and wrinkles
The market is more than saturated with ways to treat signs of premature skin aging. The biggest concerns that Dr. Green sees in clients who discuss premature aging are loss of elasticity and the formation of fine lines and wrinkles. “Injectable fillers such as Restylane, Sculptra, and Juvéderm can replace lost collagen,” she explains. “By plumping skin, they instantly smooth out wrinkles.” She also points to Fraxel Dual, a type of laser treatment, as an effective method for improving many signs of premature aging of the skin.
In fact, according to Dr. Green, Fraxel Dual not only treats brown spots, fine lines, and wrinkles but also “triggers the body to promote its natural healing, replacing old damaged skin with new skin cells, collagen, and elastin, improving the overall texture and skin tone.” But that’s only scratching the surface of the wrinkle removers available now.
Dry or itchy skin
Some people may just need to hydrate their skin if they catch premature aging early. The outermost layer of our skin, the epidermis, produces hyaluronic acid, a natural substance made by your body that holds onto water in order to keep tissues hydrated. Unfortunately, production slows as we age, and the resulting dry skin can exacerbate the look of fine lines and wrinkles (Ganceviciene, 2012). “
Hyaluronic acid is also known as the moisture magnet due to its ability to hold one thousand times its weight in water,” Dr. Green explains, adding that “it does wonders to quench dehydrated skin restoring its pH balance and moisture level leaving the skin dewy and rejuvenated.” Luckily, it’s now a common ingredient used in moisturizers.
Premature hair loss from smoking may or may not be reversible by quitting. Over time, smoking can cause permanent damage to the hair follicles or even prematurely trigger androgenic alopecia (male/female pattern baldness) (Trüeb, 2003).
Quitting will prevent any further damage and, potentially, hair loss from happening. If you have androgenic alopecia, there are several treatments available that help regrow hair, such as minoxidil and finasteride.
Can premature aging be reversed?
Overall, reversing premature aging is a two-part process: you’ll need to treat the signs of aging with some of the methods mentioned above, and then you’ll need to slow the rate at which you’re aging biologically. Lifestyle choices such as decreasing stress, not smoking, eating healthy, and exercising can all help slow telomere shortening, which may help slow overall aging (Shanbhag, 2019). But there are also targeted approaches you can take to slow aging in specific areas prone to showing the signs of premature aging.
Slowing skin aging
You may see the best results in terms of slowing your skin aging by working with a dermatologist to craft a skincare routine that prevents many common skin conditions, engaging in healthy habits that also trickle down to the look of your skin (like eating a healthy diet and sleeping enough), and potentially getting rejuvenating dermatological procedures.
There are many ingredients that, according to Dr. Green, can be beneficial for the skin and should be part of skincare products in your daily regimen, including:
- Retinoids: This family of compounds is made up of forms of vitamin A (retinol), or derivatives of the vitamin (such as tretinoin) is “the gold standard of anti-aging,” according to Dr. Green, who also advises that they’re best when used at night to reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
- Peptides: Dr. Green explains that these proteins deserve a spot in your skincare routine because they stimulate the growth of new cells and facilitate cell turnover while you sleep. “Peptides also stimulate the production of collagen, a protein that is responsible for the skin’s firmness and suppleness,” she adds.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is one of the most powerful antioxidants. This skincare ingredient fights free radical damage and protects the skin from UVA and UVB rays. Dr. Green also loves this ingredient because it aids in collagen production, brightens the skin, reduces discoloration, and softens fine lines and wrinkling.
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs): “Wrinkle cream producers include alpha-hydroxy acids for their exfoliating properties,” Dr. Green explains. “AHAs uncover new skin cells by dissolving the top layer of dead skin cells, and the disappearance of the old skin cells reveals newer, smoother skin.” Examples of AHAs you may see in skincare products are glycolic acid and lactic acid.
- Sunscreen: Since UV rays are one of the biggest causes of premature skin aging, countering their effects is one of the best steps you can take to ensure normal aging of your skin and help prevent skin cancer (Skin Cancer Foundation, 2019). Look for formulas that have SPF 30 or higher.
Botox or other neuromodulators may also be an option. These injections effectively “freeze” certain facial muscles in order to smooth fine lines and wrinkles. But they can also be preventative. Preventing the facial muscles from moving also stops them from repetitive movements that may form or deepen lines on the face.
You’re certainly not alone if you’re experiencing hair loss as a result of premature aging. Approximately 80 million people in the U.S. have androgenic alopecia, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. But there are treatments. Minoxidil may help regrow hair on top of the head, and finasteride can help slow or stop balding in many men (spironolactone is an option for women), and those are far from the only options. Hair transplants, microneedling, laser therapy, and injections of corticosteroids may all help regrow hair (AAD, n.d.).