Aging and Itching!

From time to time, questions are asked about aging and itching. The first thing to clarify is that when seniors experience itching of the skin, this is NOT part of the ‘normal’ aging process. If it was, ALL seniors would itch. And we know this is not true.

A couple of things to keep in mind - - The skin is the largest organ in the body. It is the ‘envelope’ in which we live; it is the outside ‘wrapping’ covering the exterior of all our tissues; it provides the initial ‘contact’ with our ‘environment’ (air, light, heat, cold, humidity, dust and irritants); it has a very important role in the regulation of body temperature; it is a barrier to infection; its layers are complex in structure and function; it contains millions of specialized, sensory nerve endings (receptors) variously designed to transmit to the brain sensations of heat, cold, pressure, pain, and, yes - - ITCHING.

There is no widely-accepted method of measuring (i.e. quantifying) itch. (As there is for blood pressure, for example.) We tend to use adjectives such as “mild, intensive, firey, painful, annoying, irritating, persistent, intermittent.” In many such cases we are actually talking about itching as a SYMPTOM of some pathological process. The causal pathology may be LOCA, on the skin itself, or SYSTEMIC, as part of an underlying disease (e.g. Diabetes).

Just as the aging process makes us more susceptible to age-related diseases, so also it must be said that the age-changes in some organic functions of the skin can make us more likely to experience itching as we grow older. For instance, skin tends to become drier and less elastic with age because the sebaceous glands in the skin diminish in number and function, discharging less sebum (oil) needed for lubrication and moisturising. Dry skin becomes cracked and scaly, and allows infectious organisms to penetrate causing inflammation and/or itching.

As our immune systems decline functionally with advancing age, the risk of ITCHING as a symptom of allergies, underlying medical conditions and skin conditions of all types (e.g. rashes, eczema, dermatitis) increases. Frequently, these itch-related disorders are investigated and treated by a dermatologist

In ALL age groups (but particularly in old age), skin hygiene and care is important in preventing itching. Cleansing of the skin and scalp removes dead cell debris and microscopic, environmental impurities, which accumulate in daily living and interfere with the healthy, organic functions of the skin. From the skin care and hygiene perspective, the soap, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries are constantly advising us how to “be comfortable in our own skin” via their products. (Some of which are useful in skin care - - exaggerated claims about “rejuvenation” notwithstanding!)- Take the advice of your dermatologist.

Article written by Dr. John Crawford. Following his retirement as a professor of gerontology at Simon Fraser University, Dr. John Crawford continues to share his expertise and wisdom by serving as the VP of Education for Age-Friendly Business.

Article re-printed with permission from the CPCA 'Maturity Matters'.

P.S.: If you have questions, send them to me via my 'Contact Form' (write on the subject line "Ask the Expert Question"), and I will forward it on for answers and print them on this page.

Diane Hoffmann

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