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Why Aussie women are ageing up to 20 years faster than US women

Tuesday, 11th April, 2017

Our outdoor lifestyles have a downside. Photo: Stocksy

IT is in many ways a luxury to live so close to the sea. Yet Australians may be paying for that luxury, not just with the ridiculous cost of living, but with our faces.

Our sunburnt country, hot gold hush of noon and pitiless blue skies have little mercy on our pale skin, which is ageing by as much as two decades faster than our counterparts in Europe and America.

A new study by dermatologists at MonashUniversity explained that Australia's proximity to the equator, the high sun elevation and generally clear skies mean we face higher levels of UV radiation than those in Europe and North America.

"These high UV levels put Australians at particular risk of photoageing, especially when combined with Australians' traditionally outdoor, sun-seeking lifestyle and a predominantly fair-skinned population," they added.

They weren't sure exactly what the extent of that risk was. So they asked 1472 women from Australia, Canada, the UK and the US to compare parts of their faces (looking at wrinkling, pigment and sagging across the forehead, nose, cheeks and mouth) to images showing varying degrees of ageing.

The women in the trial were included on the basis that they had not had Botox, fillers, laser or plastic surgery. Nor had they experienced facial burns or trauma. They were aged between 18 and 75 and either Caucasian or Asian. 

Along with the rating scale, the women were asked questions about their height, weight, skin characteristics, sun exposure history, and alcohol and tobacco use.

Smoking was a major factor in facial ageing, interestingly however, alcohol was not found to be a factor. Nor was BMI. They tried to look at the effect of pollution but "people can't tell you how much pollution they're exposed to" so they couldn't account for that.

The sun exposure findings however were revealing.

While the women from each country spent a comparable amount of time outdoors each day and were similar in their use of sunscreen and hats (in fact, Australian women fared slightly better with their sun protection), Australian women reported "significantly more severe signs of ageing at younger ages and a greater degree of change with age for most features than women from the other countries".

"The most significant part of this study for me was that, compared to the US, we seem to be losing weight in our face volume and face – which is a surrogate for ageing … much quicker than they are," said lead author, Associate Professor Greg Goodman. "It was scary that the average Australian was at least 10 years and, in some cases, 20 years worse off volumetrically." 

Why?

Goodman believes there are a few reasons. As a primarily fair-skinned, coastal population, we grow up in the outdoors and can stay outside during our winter (unlike many other countries), meaning our cumulative exposure to the sun is much greater.

"The amount of sunshine we have when we're young is a major part of this study," he said. "By the time you're 25 you've already had a fair bit of your long-term sun exposure. It sets you up for ageing much quicker than people in other countries."

What about the fact that we're pretty good (and getting better) at applying sunscreen?

"Our use of sunscreen might almost be part of the problem," he says tentatively.

He explains that because sunscreen can generally protect us from getting burnt (the result of shorter wave UVB), we think we're safe from the long-range ultraviolet light (UVA) and "that's causing this issue". 

The clue, Goodman explains, is not so much in the wrinkles but in the facial fat loss resulting in sagging skin.

"It's not just that we age badly, but that we age differently," he says. "The longer range wavelengths … are denaturing our fat … and we think this because we use similar machines in fat removal these days." 

Unlike UVB, which is less intense early and late in the day, UVA is consistent throughout the day and not affected by cloud or glass. While sunscreen is important, and protects us in part, it does not provide complete protection from UV rays. So even if we don't burn, we need more than sunscreen to protect against melanoma and, as researchers are learning, ageing.

So what can we do?

"The most important thing to think of is what we're not doing – things like shade and things like clothing and keeping out of the sun," Goodman says. "The amount of exposure needs to be limited in Australia."

The Sydney Morning Herald


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