The skin is the body's protective coating. It protects against the environment and helps to regulate body temperature. It also helps maintain the body's fluid and salt balance. Nerve fibers in the skin provide information about a person's surroundings. These nerves detect touch, pain, pressure, and temperature.
As a person gets older, the skin tends to get thinner. This causes older people to have pale, translucent skin. Also, the number of pigment, or color-containing, cells decreases and the skin becomes paler and spots (called liver spots) appear due to the color-containing cells grouping together. These pigmented areas tend to be more common on skin that has been exposed to the sun.
Older people sweat less due to the number of sweat glands in the skin decreasing. This unfortunately makes the ability to regulate body temperature more difficult in hot weather and results in heat emergencies, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. There is also less blood flow to the skin, making the skin of the elderly cooler to the touch. The decreased number of sweat glands and oil glands in the skin also causes drier, scalier skin that is often itchy. As the skin loses its strength and elasticity, or ability to stretch and smooth out, wrinkles and sagging occur. The skin will also bruise more easily as the blood vessels in the skin become fragile and bleed. Surprisingly, this skin change begins earlier in women than in men.
The layer of fat under the skin also becomes thinner with age. This is part of the reason for the thin, lean appearance of older people, contributing to loosening and wrinkling of the skin and particularly to sagging under the eyes. This loss of fat also means a person has less natural insulation, so an older person is at greater risk for a low body temperature, or hypothermia, when exposed to cold.