Campus & Community

HMS conference examines research on women’s aging

4 min read

With the decline in hormone replacement therapy in women, dermatologists like Sandy Tsao are seeing more patients with skin complaints.

Tsao, an instructor in dermatology at Harvard Medical School and a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that’s because the skin is the largest nonreproductive organ that is affected by estrogen.

Estrogen, Tsao said, has been shown to fight the visible effects of aging on the skin.

Tsao was one of six speakers Thursday (Nov. 2) at the seventh Annual Research Conference, sponsored by Harvard Medical School’s Center of Excellence in Women’s Health. This year’s conference, held in the New Research Building, was on the subject, “Healthy Aging: Current Research Affecting Women.”

Aging skin was just one of several topics investigated during the morning event. Other speakers discussed recent developments with Alzheimer’s disease, delaying menopause, bone health, and disability prevention.

Tsao said wrinkles, patchiness, and other signs of aging skin are caused by two main sources. One that not much can be done about is the passage of time, but the other is environmental damage to the skin, from sunlight, smoking, and other factors.

Tsao recommended daily sunscreen wear, with an spf of 30, since most sun exposure for most people comes doing everyday tasks rather than through hours spent basking on the beach. After that, she said two compounds, retinoic acid and alpha hydroxy acids have been shown to help improve the skin.

“You need to put on that sunscreen every single morning,” Tsao said. “It takes very little sun to get that cumulative photo-aging that we see.”

Jonathan Tilly, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology and director of MGH’s Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology, said research continues toward improving the quality of life for women by delaying menopause.

Tilly, whose controversial research has indicated that female mammals might have the capacity to renew their supply of egg cells, said that researchers in his lab are continuing to investigate the ability of ovaries to function into old age. Though their research is being conducted in mice now, figuring out how to extend the functional lifespan of the ovary can have repercussions in human aging. If doctors can delay the onset of menopause in a natural way, they could improve the quality of life for older women by delaying many of the changes that come with menopause without the need for hormone replacement therapy.

“If we stop ovarian failure, females do age better,” Tilly said. “We’re still at the earliest stages, but maybe we can keep the biological clock ticking.”

Human applications for his research are still a long way off, Tilly said, perhaps 10 years or more.

Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease are closer, according to Deborah Blacker, associate professor of psychiatry and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Blacker said new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease are “in the pipeline,” giving hope to those afflicted with the ailment.

Dementia, of which the vast majority of cases are caused by Alzheimer’s disease, affects older women disproportionately, Blacker said. Not only do women get the disease more often than men, they are often the caregivers when men get the disease and so can be impacted even when they’re healthy. Because women live longer than men, they are also more likely to be living alone when the disease strikes and so are more likely to be institutionalized.

The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease increases steeply the older women get, with dramatic increases through the 70s and 80s. Researchers have linked dementia to mild to moderate cardiovascular disease and “silent strokes,” which slowly damage the brain over time.

Blacker said preventing dementia may turn out to be a powerful motivator for people to pay closer attention to heart health, which includes things like eating a healthy diet, watching one’s weight, and exercising regularly.

“Alzheimer’s disease risk-reduction is a potent motivator for blood pressure and cholesterol reduction,” Blacker said.

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