Do Cells Go Through a Mid-Life Crisis?

Researchers at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) and the Centro Nacional de Análisis Genómico of the Center for Genomic Regulation (CNAG-CRG) may have the answers as to why the skin changes as we get older: an identity crisis.

To be more specific, the Spanish researchers found that fibroblasts, cells that make and maintain the body’s connective tissues, lose their identity as they get older. They also discovered that not only do these cells forget how to function, but they also adopt the characteristics of other cells.

The Importance of Fibroblasts

Fibroblasts play an essential role in the body; the connective tissues they create include collagen and elastin, which play a key role in supporting and protecting the organs. They also help to support the skin and maintain its integrity as a barrier against germs and the environment.

Fibroblasts also emit fibrous proteins and a type of gelatinous extracellular matrix material called ground substance. Ground substance fills in gaps between cells and fibers of the body.

When fibroblasts slow down their production of connective tissue cells or stop production completely, connective tissues are negatively impacted.

“The skin is affected when collagen and elastin production slows down or stops,” said Dr. Mona Alqulali, a Clinton, Iowa, cosmetic surgeon.

The effects of decreased collagen and elastin levels include changes in the skin’s ability to stretch and retract.

“When the skin cannot stretch and snap back after actions as benign as making facial expressions, it is at risk of developing wrinkles and creases,” Alqulali said.

When collagen and elastin levels decrease, the skin also begins to sag and hang loose on the face and other body areas.

“Sagging skin accumulates along the jaw, causing jowls to develop; the skin around the neck sags – even the upper arms and knees see sagging and loose skin,” Alqulali said.

Less collagen also means the skin does not repair itself easily after injury.

This is especially concerning for seniors.

“The older we get, the slower we heal,” Alqulali said.

Slow healing means a higher risk of scarring and infection when the skin is injured. Injuries to the skin can include everything from a paper cut to an acne blemish to surgical wounds.

Hope for Healing

Increased risk of infection and delayed healing can be especially serious for individuals with severe health conditions.

The researchers on the project hope to reduce the risk of delayed healing through improved understanding of how fibroblasts behave and what exactly causes them to change their behavior.

They hope their insight will allow them to develop a way to slow the aging process or stop it entirely.

The study authors believe that their project is the first of its kind to pinpoint loss of cell identity as a potential reason for the onset of the aging process.

They also hope that their study could lead to new anti-aging services and skin care treatments.

Cosmetic and anti-aging services are in high demand; each year statistics show that the number of people seeking facial and body procedures is increasing.

“Many people want to look great as they are getting older and want a little help,” said Alqulali.

Minimally invasive procedures such as dermal fillers and Botox are also growing in popularity.

Noninvasive skin-tightening treatments such as radiofrequency skin tightening and ultherapy, a procedure that uses ultrasonic energy, are also becoming more mainstream.

“People are seeking these treatments because they can get the results they want quickly and without the downtime associated with surgical procedures,” Alqulali said.


Center for Genomic Regulation. “Skin ages when the main cells in the dermis lose their identity and function.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 November 2018

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