Study finds moisturizing skin may prevent Alzheimer’s

Moisturizing your skin may help prevent diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

This is according to a new study by scientists at the University of California San Francisco and the San Francisco Veterans Administration (VA) Health Care System.

Cytokines and age-related diseases

A media release explains that as humans get older, we experience an increase in molecules in the blood called cytokines. This causes a low-level inflammation called “inflamm-aging,” which is associated with chronic, age-related diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s. The inflammation was thought by scientists to stem from the immune system or the liver, but this new research suggests that it comes from the skin.

“The inflammation must come from an organ big enough that very minor inflammation can affect the whole body. Skin is a good candidate for this because of its size,” Mao-Qiang Man, MD, a senior author of the study and research scientist in the UCSF Department of Dermatology, is quoted as saying in a media release. “Once we get old, we have dermatological symptoms like itchiness, dryness, and changes in acidity. It could be that the skin has very minor inflammation, and because it’s such a large organ it elevates circulating cytokine levels.”

Permeability barrier starts to break down around age 50

Human skin starts to deteriorate around age 50, and the permeability barrier – which keeps water in, and bacteria and harmful pathogens out – starts to break down. This causes the skin to release inflammatory cytokines, which help repair the damage. But older skin is more difficult to repair, so the skin releases more and more cytokines until they eventually reach the blood.

“Until recently, the scientific community didn’t believe that skin could contribute to systemic inflammation and disease. But in the last five years, studies of psoriasis and dermatitis have shown that skin inflammation from these diseases likely increases the risk of heart disease,” study lead author Theodora Mauro, MD, a professor of dermatology at UCSF and the San Francisco VA Health Care System, said in the release. “Aging skin is much more common than psoriasis or dermatitis, so the overall risk to the population from aging skin could far outweigh that seen from skin diseases. Decreasing inflammation simply by treating the skin dysfunction seen in aging could have profound health effects.”

Use of moisturizer lowered cytokine levels

In the pilot study, Mauro, Man, and colleagues attempted to reverse age-related skin damage in 33 adults aged 58 – 95 using an over-the-counter skin cream that had previously been shown to contribute to skin repair. Participants applied the cream all over their bodies twice a day for 30 days, at the end of which the researchers measured blood levels of three cytokines – interleukin-1 beta, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) alpha. All of these have been implicated in age-related inflammatory diseases. Using the cream was associated with a reduction in the amount of all three cytokines. In fact, using the cream lowered participants’ cytokine levels to nearly those found in people in their 30s. The cream also reportedly improved skin hydration, lowered pH, and repaired the permeability barrier.

The scientists now plan to conduct a longer, larger study to see whether lowering cytokine levels can delay or prevent age-related inflammatory diseases.

“We’re going to see whether using the cream to keep epidermal function normal as people age will prevent the development of those downstream diseases,” said co-author Peter Elias, MD, a UCSF professor of dermatology based at the San Francisco VA Health Care System. “If we do, the implication would be that after the age of 50, you would want to be applying an effective topical barrier repair preparation daily for the rest of your life.”

The study was published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology.

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