Botox, face lifts, skin creams, and face peels — these are just a handful of the many treatments and products used in the quest for younger-looking skin. A new study, however, suggests that the key to a youthful appearance may lie in our genes.
Researchers found that women who look young for their age tend to have greater expression of specific genes associated with skin health.
Lead study author Dr. Alexa B. Kimball, who works in the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, MA, and her colleagues suggest that boosting the activity of these genes may be a way to slow the skin aging process.
The researchers recently reported their findings in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
As we age, the appearance of our skin changes: it loses its elasticity and gets thinner, and we may develop wrinkles or liver spots. The extent of such changes depends on many environmental and lifestyle factors, with sun exposure being one of the biggest culprits.
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning lamps can cause damage to the skin structures, and this damage accumulates with repeated exposure throughout our lifetime. This process is known as photoaging.
Of course, we are not able to avoid photoaging and other skin-damaging processes completely, and many of us reach for the face creams with the hope that it will help to restore a youthful complexion.
That said, there are some individuals who manage to maintain their youthful-looking skin into older age, making them appear much younger than they really are. What is their secret?
According to the new study from Dr. Kimball and colleagues, their genes may hold the key.
Gene expression changes and skin aging
The researchers came to their findings by enrolling 158 white women between the ages of 20 and 74. Some of these looked significantly younger than their chronological age, as determined by digital facial analysis.
The team took skin biopsies from sun-exposed areas of skin — including the face and forearm — of each participant, as well as from the buttocks, representing a sun-protected area. These skin samples were analyzed for changes related to aging.
Saliva samples were also provided by the women, and these were used for genotyping.
Overall, the team identified a number of changes to gene expression that occur progressively from the age of 20 through 70.
These included changes in oxidative stress, which is the imbalance between the production of free radicals and the antioxidants that counter their harmful effects, and cellular senescence, a key contributor to aging in which cells stop dividing. Changes to skin barrier function were also identified.
These changes were "accelerated" between the ages of 60 and 70, the researchers report.
Additionally, upon comparing the sun-exposed and sun-protected skin samples, they were able to confirm that exposure to UV radiation is a major cause of gene expression changes related to skin health.
Skin that looks younger behaves younger
The study also revealed that women who appeared younger than their chronological age had greater expression of genes related to a variety of biological processes, such as DNA repair, oxidative stress response, and cell replication.
What is more, women who looked significantly younger than their chronological age displayed greater gene expression linked to the structure and barrier function the epidermis, or the outer layer of skin, as well as the production of components of the dermis, or the second layer of skin, such as collagen and elastin.
These women also had greater expression of genes related to the metabolism of mitochondria, which are organelles that produce energy for cells.
Interestingly, the researchers found that gene expression patterns of women who looked younger than their age were comparable with those of women who were younger.
"We were particularly surprised," says Dr. Kimball, "by the identification of a group of women who not only displayed a much more youthful skin appearance than would be expected based on their chronological age, but who also presented a specific gene expression profile mimicking the biology of much younger skin. It seems that their skin looked younger because it behaved younger."
"Improving our understanding of which choices and factors led to this specific profile is likely to be of great interest across the ages," adds Dr. Kimball.
According to the scientists, their findings suggest that increasing the expression of specific genes may be a feasible strategy to reduce skin aging.
If their results are confirmed in future studies, anti-aging creams and Botox may one day be thing of the past.