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Last updated: Oct 21, 2021
7 min read

Premature aging: what is it, symptoms, and how to prevent it

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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 nasty hangover, but it just might be premature aging.

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What is premature aging?

The main difference between normal aging and premature aging is the timeline. For most people, fine lines and wrinkles begin to show up by their early 30s, but this can occur even earlier for people experiencing premature aging. 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

Fine lines, wrinkles, and grey hair are generally the first things that come to mind when talking about aging. However, aging 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 ultimately results from the shortening of our telomeres, caps at the end of our DNA strands that protect our DNA. As we age, the telomeres get shorter and shorter, eventually leaving our DNA exposed to damage, leading to the emergence of signs of aging (Shanbhag, 2019).

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 play a role in how quickly we age. But certain lifestyle factors can speed up the rate at which telomeres 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).

When it comes to our skin, sun exposure is the most significant external factor in aging. Roughly 80% of facial skin aging is due to sun damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays (Shanbhag, 2019). 

In addition, smoking has been tied to accelerated aging skin. Further research has also found a connection between smoking and hair loss. Smoking can damage collagen and elastin fibers in your skin, leading to signs of premature aging (Trüeb, 2015). 

While those are the biggest culprits, lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, and stress can contribute to aging skin. (Shanbhag, 2019)

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 repeatedly hear, 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. 

Although we have yet to pin down any exact diet that slows down aging, we know that some micronutrients help counter cellular damage that can contribute to the aging process. One of the metabolic processes that speeds aging is 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.

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 are often loss of elasticity and the formation of fine lines and wrinkles. Injectable fillers such as Restylane, Sculptra, and Juvéderm can replace the volume that has been lost. They “fill” and plump the skin, smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles (Walker, 2021). 

Laser treatments can also help by creating localized tissue stress, triggering the wound healing response. This prompts the body to replace the old damaged skin with new, healthier skin cells. Lasers can improve premature aging by affecting your skin’s overall texture and skin tone (Verma, 2021).

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 and keeps tissues hydrated. Unfortunately, production slows as we age, and the resulting dry skin can exacerbate the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Luckily, it’s now a common ingredient used in moisturizers (Ahmed, 2020).

Hair loss

One potential cause of premature hair loss is smoking—this 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, 2015). 

Quitting smoking will prevent any further hair damage and, potentially, keep smoking-induced hair loss from happening. If you have androgenic alopecia, several treatments are available that help regrow hair, such as minoxidil and finasteride (Propecia; see Important Safety Information).

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 a nutritious diet, and exercising can help slow telomere shortening and the overall signs of 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

Your best chance at slowing your skin aging and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles is by working with a dermatologist to craft a skincare routine to promote healthy skin. You can also engage in healthy habits that affect the look of your skin (like eating a healthy diet and sleeping enough) and potentially get rejuvenating dermatological procedures as needed. Things to include in your daily regimen include:

  • Retinoids: This family of compounds comes from vitamin A (retinol) or its derivatives (such as tretinoin; see Important Safety Information). Topical retinoids, like tretinoin, have been shown to improve cell turnover, potentially reversing some of the signs of premature aging by reducing fine lines and wrinkles (Yoham, 2020).
  • Peptides: Peptides are the building blocks of the elastin and collagen proteins that give your skin structure. They deserve a spot in your skincare routine because they can stimulate the growth of new cells and boost collagen production—this helps give your skin a fuller and more youthful appearance (Jeong, 2019).
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is one of the most potent antioxidants. This skincare ingredient fights free radical damage and protects the skin from UVA and UVB rays. It may also aid collagen production, brighten the skin, improve skin firmness, and soften fine lines and wrinkles (Zasada, 2019).
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs): AHAs help uncover new skin cells by removing the top layer of dead skin cells to reveal fresher, smoother skin. Studies suggest that hydroxy acids may smooth wrinkles, increase skin cell turnover, and restore moisture to dry, aging skin.  Examples of AHAs you may see in skincare products are glycolic acid and lactic acid. (Ahmed, 2020).
  • 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. Look for formulas that have SPF 30 or higher (Guan, 2021).
  • Neuromodulators: Botox or other neuromodulators may also be an option. These injections effectively “freeze” specific facial muscles 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.

Hair loss

You’re certainly not alone if you’re experiencing hair loss as a result of premature aging. For example, androgenic alopecia (the typical “male pattern baldness” or “female pattern baldness”) affects 30% of U.S adults at age 30, 40% at age 40, and 50% at age 50 (Phillips, 2017).

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 (Al Aboud, 2020).

References

  1. Ahmed, I. A., Mikail, M. A., Zamakshshari, N., & Abdullah, A. H. (2020). Natural anti-aging skincare: role and potential. Biogerontology, 21(3), 293–310. doi: 10.1007/s10522-020-09865-z. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32162126/
  2. Al Aboud, A. M. & Zito, P. M.  (2020). Alopecia. [Updated Aug 11, 2021].  In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct 11, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538178/
  3. Guan, L. L., Lim, H. W., & Mohammad, T. F. (2021). Sunscreens and photoaging: a review of current literature. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, 1–10. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s40257-021-00632-5. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34387824/
  4. Jeong, S., Yoon, S., Kim, S., Jung, J., Kor, M., Shin, K., et al. (2019). Anti-wrinkle benefits of peptides complex stimulating skin basement membrane proteins expression. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 21(1), 73. doi: 10.3390/ijms21010073. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6981886/
  5. Phillips, T. G., Slomiany, W. P., & Allison, R. (2017). Hair loss: common causes and treatment. American Family Physician, 96(6), 371–378. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28925637/
  6. Shammas, M. A. (2011). Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 14(1), 28-34. doi: 10.1097/mco.0b013e32834121b1. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21102320/
  7. Shanbhag, S., Nayak, A., Narayan, R., & Nayak, U. Y. (2019). Anti-aging and Sunscreens: Paradigm Shift in Cosmetics. Advanced Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 9(3), 348-359. doi: 10.15171/apb.2019.042. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31592127/
  8. Trüeb R. M. (2015). Effect of ultraviolet radiation, smoking and nutrition on hair. Current Problems in Dermatology, 47, 107–120. doi: 10.1159/000369411. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26370649/
  9. Verma, N., Yumeen, S., Raggio, B. S. (2021). Ablative laser resurfacing. [Updated Aug 13, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 11, 2021 fromhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557474/
  10. Walker, K., Basehore, B. M., Goyal, A., et al. (2021). Hyaluronic acid. [Updated July 7, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 11, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482440/
  11. Yoham, A. L. & Casadesus, D. (2020) Tretinoin. [Updated Dec 5, 2020]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 11, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557478/
  12. Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology, 36(4), 392-397. doi: 10.5114/ada.2019.87443. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6791161/