(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com)
Do you find that as you age, your body is becoming its own Sahara Desert? It’s not your imagination that things are drying up — environment, hormonal changes, sun damage and certain medications all play a part. Here’s the 4-1-1 on what to expect and what to do about it:
Start with your dentist for an assessment because dry mouth can be caused by certain autoimmune diseases such as Sjogren’s syndrome, diabetes, hypertension and rheumatoid arthritis. (A dentist can see the signs of a systemic problem in the mouth and refer you to an appropriate physician for further testing.)
There are also hundreds of medications that cause dry mouth. If you are on one that can’t be swapped for a different, less drying one, you have to take particular care of dental health, says Dr. Kimberly Harms, a consumer adviser for the American Dental Association (ADA).
“Saliva is extremely critical to oral health — it lubricates the teeth, so bacteria can’t stick, and has disinfectant properties,” says Harms. If you have chronic dry mouth, “make extra sure to brush two minutes twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and floss. You may even need a prescription fluoride toothpaste. And go for regular cleanings at your dentist.”
If that doesn’t do it, try over-the-counter saliva substitutes, drink water frequently or chew sugarless gum to stimulate saliva production (look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance).
If you sleep on your back, your mouth may dry out because of mouth breathing. Get a body pillow, position yourself with your head raised a little and use a room vaporizer.
Smoking and chewing tobacco are very drying. There’s no way around it — the only way to solve the problem if you do either is to quit.
If you sleep on your back, your mouth may dry out because of mouth breathing.
Lack of vaginal lubrication for women in the over-50 crowd is mostly due to hormonal disruption from menopause, although it also can be a sign of a local inflammation or infection or an autoimmune disease such as lichen sclerosus, says gynecologist Dr. Lynn Pattimakiel of the Cleveland Clinic Internal Medicine & Center for Specialized Women’s Health. “See your gynecologist to go over your symptoms so you can pinpoint the source of the dryness and irritation,” she says.
If sexual activity has become painful, try using an over-the-counter lubricant such as Astroglide or KY. Pattimakiel says you can also use olive oil!
Unrelated to intercourse, use vaginal moisturizers two to three times a week. (Warning: Some women find the propylene glycol in some of these lubricants irritating. If you are sensitive, look for one that doesn’t contain it, such as Replens.)
Been there, applied that, and it’s still pretty dry? Ask your doctor about local estrogen therapy — tablets, creams or a ring. “These are not systemic hormone therapy, but a slight amount is absorbed into the blood stream. If you’ve had breast or uterine cancer, you need to discuss the pros and cons with your physician,” Pattimakiel says.
If sexual intercourse is severely painful, there is also a new oral drug on the market that’s been approved for treatment, Osphena.
Your windows to your soul can also be windows to your health. Eyes can dry up for a whole host of reasons including age, environment, too much time staring at screens and cigarette smoking. But the problem could also be due to medical reasons, such as menopause, inflammatory diseases (arthritis, Sjogren’s disease, thyroid disease) and allergies.
“If you don’t take care of dry eyes, it can cause blurry vision, burning, and irritation. Long-term, it can damage the surface of the cornea, which can affect vision and overall health of the corneal tissue,” warns Teri Geist, spokesperson for the American Optometric Association based in Omaha, Neb.
What to do? Use humidifiers, wear sunglasses, drink lots of water, and take Omega-3 supplements.
Talk to your optometrist about OTC eye lubricants. “People sometimes wait for the symptoms to arise before they use the drops. You want to use artificial tears preventively on a scheduled basis. Just use lubricating artificial tears — don’t use anything advertised to get the red out because it’s irritating,” says Geist. If you are sensitive to preservatives, look for products that don’t have thimerosal.
If these steps don’t work, ask your doctor about prescription tear replacements such as Restasis, which helps reduce inflammation in eyelids and restore natural tear production.
“Over 50 is the Maginot Line in terms of skin,” warns Dr. Amy Newburger, a Purchase, N.Y.-based spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. “After that, in both men and women the quality of collagen changes,” which reduces skin’s density and capacity to hold on to moisture. Also, the outer layer of skin is thinner and no longer watertight, so the skin gets dehydrated.
Here’s how to hold the line: When you use most soaps, a lot of the lipids that contribute to the protective layer of skin are washed away. Opt for gentle cleansers such as Dove, Purpose, or Clinique soap for sensitive or dry skin. Then use moisturizers that contain lipids (ingredients will list linoleic acid, linolenic acids, squalane, cholesterol and ceramide) such as Aveeno Positively Radiant and CeraVe.
Newberger also recommends safflower oil, which has a lot of linoleic acid in it, an essential fatty acid. But here’s the important part: “You need to apply your moisturizer within three minutes of getting out or your skin will start to dehydrate,” says Newburger.
Also, wear sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on your face and chest all year round. “Sun interferes with the formation of new collagen and increases its breakdown,” says Newburger.
Dry Hair and Scalp
Every cellular process gets slower with age, and this includes hair growth and oil production, says Newburger. “There are fewer hair follicles, and when that happens, you lose sebaceous glands associated with that hair. That means fewer oil glands, which makes your scalp and hair dry and irritated.”
For your scalp, use a dandruff shampoo such as Head and Shoulders to lessen the flakiness. To replenish oil, use a moisturizing conditioner that is made for dry hair or color-treated hair. “They are designed to leave a layer of emollient that improves the glide for scalp and hair,” adds Newburger.
Dry, Brittle Nails
Blood circulation decreases with aging, which in turn slows nail growth, explains Newburger. For women, dry nails are also a symptom of menopause.
The nail itself is made of compacted specific protein, lipid and water. When you use a detergent to wash your hands, some amount of lipid is dissolved away, and this removes some of the nail’s flexibility, so that it will break more easily when bending pressure is applied.
What to do to get your Elvira back? First, the obvious: wear gloves when doing rough work, using harsh chemicals or hand-washing dishes. And go easy on hand sanitizers — the alcohol in them can strip moisture from nails.
Topically, try any cream that has ceramides, and/or linolenic acid (seed oils, like canola and safflower). For tougher cases, Newberger recommends the prescription Genadur Nail Kit, which is pricey but effective.
Contrary to popular belief, no study has shown that eating gelatin or foods with calcium improves nail brittleness. “However, foods that are helpful are those that are high in unsaturated fatty acids and/or are high in biotin,” says Newberger. This includes nuts and fish. Biotin supplements are also available.
Sorry, smokers: brittle nails are yet another reason to quit. Smoking breaks down biotin and it further decreases blood flow to the nail, all of which make nails weaker.
If your nails don’t improve, see a doctor. Dry, brittle nails can be caused by medical conditions such as thyroid disease, psoriasis and poor nutrition, as well as cholesterol medications.
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