On Your Health

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Common Causes of Premature Aging

Aging is inevitable. We all wish we could look youthful and feel healthy forever, but the reality is your appearance and your body change over time. For some, these changes occur faster than others, known as premature aging.

Premature aging can happen as a result of common lifestyle factors and behaviors, all of which can be corrected or altered. We’ll explain how premature aging can affect you and discuss some simple tips on how you can avoid it.

What is premature aging?

From a molecular standpoint, the human body is full of telomeres, or sections of DNA protein structures at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres help preserve the genetic information that keeps you looking young and spry. Some of the telomere is lost when each cell divides, although an enzyme called telomerase helps replenish this. Over time, the telomeres naturally shorten with age and expose your DNA to damage and eventually die off.

This process is known as intrinsic ageing (sometimes called chronological aging). It’s unique to each individual since it’s entirely tied to your genetics.

However, certain environmental and behavioral factors can speed up the telomere shortening process that makes your DNA more prone to damage. This is called extrinsic aging.

As a result, premature aging can set in long before it was expected. In other words, your biological clock is more advanced than your chronological clock. Controllable factors such as stress, smoking and sun exposure can all play a role in expediting extrinsic aging.

What happens to skin as we age?

One of the most noticeable aspects of aging is the changes your skin undergoes. You may bruise easier, experience dry sky more often or notice wrinkles in places that were previously smooth. All these changes, which can be sped up by external factors, occur due to a variety of changes.

The skin has three important layers: the outer epidermis, the middle dermis and the inner subcutaneous fat layer. The epidermis is a thin layer that contains the pigment that colors your skin. The thicker dermis layer contains hair follicles, oil glands and blood vessels. The inner, fatty layer serves as a protective barrier to your organs.

As you age, the epidermis gradually thins and pigment levels decrease. This results in thinner, paler skin. You may also notice sunspots from UV exposure, known as lentigos. 

The dermis contains connective tissue made up of collagen and elastin that provides strength and flexibility to your skin. The lack of elasticity as you age, known as elastosis, makes skin loose.

The dermis is also home to blood vessels, which become frail as you age. The weakened blood vessel walls are more prone to bruising and bleeding. Additionally, sweat glands in the dermis lose functionality and make it more difficult for the skin to produce sweat to cool you down.

The sebaceous glands, also called oil glands, are responsible for keeping the skin moist and hydrated. Over time, oil gland production decreases and makes you more prone to dry, itchy skin.

At the bottom layer, the thicker subcutaneous fat slowly thins out as you get older, resulting in less protection against temperature and trauma. This explains why many older adults are constantly cold and experience skin injuries.

How to avoid premature aging

Your skin inevitably becomes less elastic, dry, prone to injury and loses insulation as you age. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to entirely slow down this process.

What you can do is avoid behavioral and environmental factors that cause you to age prematurely. 

Sun exposure

Next time you’re at the beach, look at the many older adults who are tan yet have wrinkly skin. Chances are years of sun exposure have sped up this process. Constant exposure to UV light breaks down collagen and elastin, causing the skin to wrinkle, sag and stretch. It can also cause dark spots by increasing melanin production.

Always remember to wear sunscreen when performing outdoor activities. A hat and long sleeve shirt can also provide protection when at the pool, beach or lake.
If you’re intent on using UV light as a means of tanning, either from the sun or a tanning bed, use self-tanner lotion or spray instead.


There’s a reason the phrase, “you look stressed” exists. Chronic stress can limit your body’s supply of telomerase, which alters its ability to replenish the lost telomere involved in cell division. More specifically, cortisol, a hormone that allows your immune system to deal with stress, suppresses telomerase activation in immune system cells. Premature aging occurs as a result, leading to wrinkles, dry skin and other changes.


Smoking is mainly viewed as a health risk to your lungs, heart and brain, but it can also accelerate premature aging. Just as smoking can impact blood flow to your heart or brain, it also can harm blood vessels responsible for carrying oxygen to the skin. Without enough oxygen, your skin is more prone to wrinkling and sagging. Smoke can even damage hair follicles, causing hair to thin or fall out.

Unhealthy eating habits

Eating fast food and sugary foods can impact more than just your waistline. People who are obese or have a higher body mass index experience more oxidative stress and inflammation than healthy adults. This stress and inflammation can increase the rate at which telomeres shorten.

To help prevent premature aging, eat a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. There are even stress-fighting foods that may help you. Stay away from refined carbohydrates and saturated fats that can lead to weight gain. It’s also helpful to incorporate activity into your routine. Exercise can help improve circulation, which is beneficial for the skin.


Excessive alcohol use can shorten telomere length, thus leading to premature aging. The key word here is excessive. You can still consume alcohol, just be mindful of your intake. Alcohol also dehydrates your skin and can affect skin oils, both of which you need to keep the skin moist and lubricated.

How to prevent premature aging of the face

If you find yourself more prone to premature aging than others, whether from controllable or uncontrollable factors, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself. This especially holds true for people looking to keep their face looking as young as possible.

To learn more about treatments, read our blog on which nonsurgical anti-aging options are available to you.

Protect from UV rays

Protecting your face from UV rays is one of the simplest things you can do. For starters, limit the amount of time you spend in the direct sun during the day when the sun is strongest. Wear a hat and sunscreen to shade your forehead, nose and eyes. Remember to reapply sunscreen frequently, especially if there is excess perspiration. For women, consider using skincare products that have built-in SPF protection.


Apply a facial moisturizer each morning or before bed to keep your skin hydrated. The oils in  moisturizer lock in moisture and prevent water from escaping. Dry skin can make wrinkles appear worse.

Be aware of facial expressions

You probably don’t think twice about the facial expressions you make, primarily because a healthy face is flexible enough to handle constant muscle contractions that cause grooves to form. These grooves often go unnoticed because the skin is able to contract back. But, eventually, repetitive movements create an elasticity issue and become permanent wrinkles. Squinting is a prime example of repetitive facial expressions. Wearing sunglasses outside can help decrease the need to squint.22

Many of the causes of premature aging can be controlled. If you think your lifestyle may be speeding up this process, contact your primary care physician to discuss changes you can make. If you’re already showing signs of premature aging, contact a dermatologist to find out which treatments you can benefit from.


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