As you grow older you may start to notice that wounds or injuries don’t heal as quickly as they once did. This is no coincidence. The impact of age on the body’s ability to heal itself is well documented.
Not only are older adults more likely to have to deal with injuries but the healing process can also take longer and the results of these chronic wounds can have an even more profound impact on overall quality of life. Fortunately, staying educated on how to control underlying conditions and being able to know when it’s time to reach out to a professional for help can go a long way toward prevention and healing.
Let’s take a look at why age can play a role in how quickly and effectively our body heals and why it’s even more important for the older population to seek professional care from a wound care specialist after an injury.
Factors that Affect Wound Healing
Aging affects every part of the body, including the structure and function of the skin. When you age, wound healing slows down because the skin is thinner. However, age isn’t the only factor that can affect wound healing and recovery. Some of the other factors can include:
- Nutrition: An essential component of healing, proper nutrition can prevent optimal healing or encourage it.
- Obesity: Those with body weight over 20% of their “ideal weight” have a larger risk of infection or complications.
- Multiple trauma to one wound: If you have had surgery, or have multiple wounds, your immunities may be lower than normal, and your wounds may heal at a slower rate.
- Moisture in your skin: Skin infections and lesions are more common for people with drier skin (often found in elderly patients). When skin is too wet, it can also lead to infections. Therefore, maintaining an even level of moisture in the skin is necessary for proper healing.
- Chronic diseases: Diseases impact the body’s ability to heal. Those who suffer from any form of cardiovascular condition, immunodeficiency, or diabetes, typically suffer from slow wound healing.
- Taking prescription medication: Prescription medications can negatively affect healing. Drugs such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, prescribed for pain, and over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, often interfere with the healing cycle. Additionally, anticoagulants can disrupt blood clotting, and immunosuppressants can weaken the immune system.
Stages of Wound Healing
In order to understand the impact of aging on the healing process, it’s important to first explore how wounds heal in general. While the process can vary depending on several factors such as the severity and location of the wound as well as preexisting medical conditions, typically wound healing takes place in three main stages.
- During the inflammatory phase; the body attempts to stop blood loss by constricting blood vessels and forming a blood clot. At the same time, the body works to clean the wound by moving immune cells to the injured area to eliminate bacteria and get rid of dead cells.
- During this stage, the wound begins to close and regrow damaged skin. Cells around the wound begin to divide to create new cells while fibroblasts hold the cells together and work to produce new collagen and blood vessels, and repair damaged tissue.
- The last stage is when the wound will close and the body strengthens the new skin. As the body continues to create collagen and form new tissue the wound begins to heal and may develop into a scar. Over time, cells that are no longer needed become inactive which helps reduce the visibility of scars.
Why Older Adults Heal More Slowly
Each phase of the wound healing process is affected among the elderly, resulting in a more delayed recovery time. In fact, any interference with the wound healing phases is said to delay healing by 20-60%. Let’s break down why older adults are more prone to injuries and why age can play a role in how effectively wounds heal.
Diabetes and Age-Related Disorders
Not only do wounds tend to heal more slowly with age but many chronic wounds such as diabetic or venous ulcers, arterial insufficiency, and pressure ulcers have been known to be associated with conditions that often occur in older individuals. Further, surgery is also common among older adults, increasing the risk of potential wound complications.
One example of these age-related diseases that can impair wound healing is diabetes. As we age our risk of developing diabetes dramatically increases. Those suffering from diabetic wounds often have circulation problems and necessary nutrients and oxygen don’t reach the wound site resulting in slow healing.
Aging Skin and Pressure Wounds
Changes to the skin are one of the most obvious signs of aging and can have a direct impact on wound healing. In fact, it’s said that skin injuries in older adults can take up to four times longer to recover compared to younger individuals.
This is partly due to the effect of aging on the cells within the body. In many elderly patients, cells divide more slowly or in some cases not at all (a condition referred to as senescence). The body also has a more difficult time producing fat cells under the skin. These effects are one of the reasons why the elderly have thin skin and are more prone to wounds or injuries.
Additionally, after a wound, the skin doesn’t heal as quickly or properly. These aging cells take longer to regrow skin and won’t be able to guard the body against bacteria, increasing the risk of infection. Research also indicates that cells that don’t divide may also increase inflammation and damage surrounding tissue; impeding the healing process.
These changes also increase the risk of pressure wounds because:
- Thinner skin is more prone to tears and wounds.
- Lower body fat makes bones more pronounced making injury more likely.
- As collagen decreases the skin loses its elasticity.
- Over time the skin becomes drier which slows regeneration.
- As blood vessels become more fragile bruising and bleeding become more common.
Poor Nutrition and Wound Healing
Lack of physical activity and poor nutrition can also play a role in wound healing and risk of injury. Elderly people with poor nutrition are typically at higher risk of bone fractures, more likely to need extended hospitalization stays, and have lower success rates of treatments. While everyone requires energy to heal this is especially crucial for elderly patients who are at greater risk of malnutrition and tend to heal more slowly.
If you are seeking help from a wound care specialist ask them for dietary and nutrition recommendations. The top professionals will work closely with each patient’s nutritionist and physical therapist to coordinate care and optimize healing.
Additional Wound Care Tips For Seniors
While in many cases, serious wounds should be treated by a wound care specialist or healthcare professional – especially if you are an older adult – there are a few things you can do to help minor wounds heal more effectively. Below are a few tips:
- Wash hands: The first thing you should do when treating a wound for yourself, or someone else is to wash your hands.
- Apply Pressure: Next, you will want to stop the bleeding by applying gentle pressure. Use a clean cloth to soak up any blood, and keep it pressured. This should be done for a few minutes until the bleeding stops.
- Rinse: Unlike cleaning, be sure to rinse out any dirt or other debris in the wound. This will help to prevent infection. Rinse the cut under running water or pour clean water over it. Avoid using antiseptic.
- Clean: After ensuring there is nothing in the wound, take soap and wash around the injury. Avoid putting soap on the wound; do not use hydrogen peroxide on damaged skin. Pat the area dry, do not wipe.
- Remove debris: After washing and cleaning the wound, check to see if there is any leftover dirt. Use tweezers to remove anything left behind.
- Use ointment: Ointments like Neosporin or Polysporin can help avoid infection and keep the wound moist.
- Bandage: You want to protect the wound if it is larger than a cut or scrape. Use a bandage to prevent the blood and pieces of a scab from getting on your clothes. Bandages can help prevent scabs and scars in the long term. It will also help keep bacteria out.
- Change bandages: Be sure to put new bandages on at least once per day. This will ensure the wound stays clean, especially if it gets dirty. Always remember to wash your hands between, before, and after changing dressings. Avoid touching the wound, and apply antibiotic ointment under each new bandage.
How to Spot an Infection
Any opening in the skin can become infected, which is why it’s imperative that you are aware of the signs of an infection and check for them often. If you notice any of the following signs, contact a doctor or medical professional immediately.
- Increased redness and swelling
- Severe pain near the wound or in the limb of the wound
- Gray fluid draining from the wound
- Fever higher than 100.4F in adults
- Red streaks near the cut
Specialized Wound Care For Seniors and Older Patients
If you have suffered a serious wound or have a wound that won’t heal the specialists at West Coast Wound and Skin Care are here to help. We know it can be difficult for older patients to leave home for the care they need, that is why we provide our full range of high-quality, full-spectrum wound care services to patients from the convenience of their homes.
Whether you are in an assisted living facility, skilled nursing home, or at your own residence our skilled medical professionals can help manage your wound and ensure it heals correctly. We also invite you to visit our new wound care center where our physicians provide the full spectrum of wound care and treatments.
Don’t wait until your wound gets worse, contact us and book an appointment today.