Findings from a pilot study suggest that maintaining the skin through moisturization can reduce systemic inflammation and, consequently, age-related disease.
Published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (Mar. 5, 2019, online ahead of print), the study looked at 33 adults aged 58 to 95 years who used approximately 3 mL of an over-the-counter emollient on their bodies, twice a day. The participants were compared to both untreated older individuals and a cohort of younger people.
The rationale for the study is that low-level inflammation associated with aging—particularly an overall increase of cytokines in the blood—has been linked to a number of chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. While there has been some speculation that the immune system or liver may be the source of this inflammation, the paper’s authors—dermatologists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)—hypothesized that the skin might be the source of this phenomenon.
“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,” said study senior author Dr. Mao-Qiang Man, in a press release.
Dr. Man is a research scientist in the UCSF department of dermatology, who is based at the San Francisco VA Health Care System and is also a visiting professor at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China.
“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.”
“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,” said study lead author Dr. Theodora Mauro, a professor of dermatology at UCSF and the San Francisco VA Health Care System. “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.”
In the study, investigators measured the blood levels of the cytokines interleukin-1 beta, interleukin-6, and tumour necrosis factor (TNF) alpha in the active participants and controls after 30 days. They found that not only did the older adults in the treatment group have lower cytokine levels than their age-matched untreated peers, but their cytokine levels were almost as low as they found in the blood of adults in their 30s.
With these promising results from the pilot, the research team now plans to conduct a longer, larger study to test if lowering cytokine levels with the emollient 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 Dr. Peter Elias, 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.”