Review Article

American Journal of Clinical Dermatology

, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 73-86

First online:

Clinical Implications of Aging Skin

Cutaneous Disorders in the Elderly
  • Miranda A. FarageAffiliated withThe Procter & Gamble Company, Winton Hill Business Center Email author 
  • , Kenneth W. MillerAffiliated withThe Procter & Gamble Company, Winton Hill Business Center
  • , Enzo BerardescaAffiliated withSan Gallicano Dermatological Institute
  • , Howard I. MaibachAffiliated withDepartment of Dermatology, University of California

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Aging skin undergoes progressive degenerative change. Structural and physiologic changes that occur as a natural consequence of intrinsic aging combined with the effects of a lifetime of ongoing cumulative extrinsic damage and environment insult (e.g. overexposure to solar radiation) can produce a marked susceptibility to dermatologic disorders in the elderly. As skin ages, the vasculature progressively atrophies. The supporting dermis also deteriorates, with collagen and elastin fibers becoming sparse and increasingly disordered. These changes leave the elderly increasingly susceptible to both vascular disorders such as stasis dermatitis and skin injuries such as pressure ulcers and skin tears, with a steadily decreasing ability to effect skin repair.

A parallel erosion of normal immune function produces higher levels of autoimmune skin disorders such as bullous pemphigoid, benign mucous membrane pemphigoid, paraneoplastic pemphigoid, and pemphigus vulgaris. Lichen sclerosus, an autoimmune disorder often occurring in the genital area in older women, is not common but is an important development because of the potential for substantial discomfort as well as serious complications. The prevalence of polypharmacy in this population increases the risk for autoimmune drug reactions, and diagnosis should be undertaken with an awareness that polypharmacy in this population creates a greatly increased susceptibility to drug eruptions that can mimic other cutaneous disorders.

Immunologic senescence in the elderly also sets the stage for potential reactivation of the Varicella zoster virus, in which initial dermatologic involvement expands into the major sensory ganglia. Known as shingles, this disorder can be excruciatingly painful with the potential to cause blindness if the optic nerve becomes involved.

Dermatoses such as xerosis, pruritus, and eczema are also widespread in the elderly, create substantial suffering in those afflicted, and often prove recalcitrant to treatment. Individual susceptibility to specific types of contact dermatitis changes over the lifetime, and seborrheic dermatitis is substantially more prevalent in the elderly.

It is not uncommon for older patients to have multiple impairments, with the potential for cognitive dysfunction as well as impaired vision, hearing, or mobility. In addition, they may not have adequate housing or nutrition, or the financial resources necessary for adequate compliance. Physicians must take into consideration the patient’s physical ability to comply with the recommended therapy as well as socioeconomic factors that may impact on compliance. Simple topical regimens are preferable wherever possible in order to maximize compliance and, therefore, efficacy. Extra effort may be necessary to ensure that instructions are accurately followed and that ongoing compliance with the regimen prescribed is actually achieved.

Management of dermatologic disorders in the elderly is often less than optimal, due to the fact that the special needs and limitations of this population are not adequately considered. Treatments should consider the intrinsic differences between younger and older patients thatmay impact on diagnosis and therapy choice. The aged patient is often afflicted with numerous co-morbidities that can influence the choice of therapy. Skin integrity in the elderly is compromised, and safety concerns are increased with the long-term use of any medication prescribed. In addition, the prevalence of polypharmacy in the aged population substantially increases the risk of cutaneous drug reactions, which can profoundly complicate accurate diagnosis of dermatologic disorders. The aged population also needs to be more closely monitored because of increased fragility of the skin and the physical limitations that may hinder compliance with prescribed regimens.