Why Wound Healing is Slower as You Age
Medically reviewed by Leann Poston, M.D. on 9/28/20
Have you ever noticed that, as you get older, you seem to heal more slowly? Wounds seem like they stick around a lot longer, may bleed longer before they scab over, and are simply not as resilient as you were used to when you were younger. A cut or scrape that once would have been gone in a few days may take weeks or months to disappear fully.
You’re not imaging things – wound healing is definitely slower the older you get. There are various reasons for this, including natural body changes, health and medical conditions, and lifestyle factors. Crucially, however, there are also things that you can do to boost wound healing in each of those areas. Some wound treatments have been developed in recent years that, though not in widespread use, can compensate for some of the slower healing typical of older adults. We’ll explore all aspects of wound healing as it relates to age in our guide below.
How Aging Changes the Body
Aging changes the body in a number of ways, several of which influence wound healing and overall healing ability. By the time most people reach their 30s, many of the processes related to growth and development have been completed. Certain biological triggers then start to work on the body, slowly reducing the levels of various hormones and chemicals that the body produced during youth and young adulthood. Decreasing levels of human growth hormone, for instance, have been implicated in causing a lot of the bodily changes we see with age. That includes reduced wound healing ability, among many other consequences.
Additionally, various types of cells that aid in repair and wound healing are less prevalent with age. Stem cells, for instance, are known to decrease substantially over time, with only a fraction as many present in the body in adulthood as during childhood (Ahmed et al., 2017) These play important roles in regenerating the cells and tissues that may be lost or damaged with a wound or injury.
Skin and Tissue Changes that Impact Wound Healing
Decreased hormone levels and fewer stem cells are not the only culprits when it comes to depressed wound healing associated with age, either. Aging causes the skin and related support tissues to undergo gradual changes that can make wounds more likely, and healing more difficult. Decreased collagen and elastin in the skin mean it loses some of its flexibility, and can more easily tear or break. Skin also tends to thin with age, along with a redistribution or change in subcutaneous fat layers. Oil production decreases, so skin tends to become drier and more prone to itchiness or irritation.
All of this typically leads to less plump or resilient skin and tissues, increased wrinkles, and the other aesthetic hazards of getting older. But these same processes increase the risk of skin and tissue injury, and make wound healing a slower process as we get older.
Health Conditions and Medical Causes for Reduced Wound Healing
At the same time, we are more prone to developing health problems or having certain medical conditions as we get older compared to when we were younger. Many of these health conditions, diseases, and related problems can result in wound healing problems and/or an increased proclivity for injury to occur. Some are obviously more temporary in nature than others, and with fairly clear-cut causes. Others are more of a chronic problem that can get worse over time, and may be the result of a confluence of factors. Briefly, some of the most common health conditions and medical causes for reduced wound healing include:
- Circulation problems, caused by high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, vein disease, and related pathologies. In most cases, these conditions result in less complete circulation in the body, meaning nutrients and other vital substances are less effectively circulated and therefore less effectively available where they are needed for wound healing, skin and tissue health, and related purposes. They can also mean that waste is less effectively removed, and lead to the accumulation of dead cells, pooled blood, and similar, especially in the extremities, which increase the risk for tissue death.
- Diabetes, obesity, and other related health conditions can cause numbness or pain in the extremities. This makes it less easy to feel or identify a scrape or cut in the skin or tissue. Inflammatory response is also suppressed, especially in diabetics. Since inflammation is the first step in signaling the cells that are responsible for wound healing, this further reduces speed and efficiency.
- Radiation treatment for various types of cancer. The radiation can kill off healthy cells in addition to cancerous cells, and this can negatively impact wound healing, even in areas separate and apart from where radiation therapy has taken place.
- Pre-existing skin conditions, ranging from eczema to allergies and similar, may increase the likelihood of tissue injury with age, and decrease or interfere with the ability of your body to heal.
- Clotting disorders and certain medications to prevent clotting (such as warfarin) can reduce wound healing ability. Clotting at an injury site is an essential part of closing a wound, and when that mechanism is impaired – either organically or due to medication – it can make wound healing more difficult, and even minor wounds more dangerous.
- Patients on immunosuppressant drugs, corticosteroids, or certain cancer drugs may also have suppressed wound healing abilities. These are known and listed side effects of these and related medications.
Lifestyle Factors That Hinder Wound Healing
In addition to the aging-related causes and medical condition/medication causes of impaired wound healing, various lifestyle factors can contribute. Every individual is unique, and what may cause reduced wound healing capability in some people may not have an impact in others. However, several lifestyle factors are known to contribute towards decreased wound healing ability in the vast majority of people, often through similar mechanisms to those described above concerning medical and health causes. These include:
- Malnutrition or an unbalanced diet. Having the necessary proteins, vitamins, and minerals your body needs to produce the cells and substances necessary for wound healing adequately is essential. Often, older adults tend to eat less, and may not realize they are suffering from an unbalanced diet or malnutrition until it manifests in some tangible way.
- Obesity, for the reasons discussed above regarding health conditions and medical causes.
- Decreased exercise or physical activity. Exercise and physical activity increase circulation, as well as promote the production of various cellular regenerative substances in the body. A lack of exercise or physical activity can contribute to wound healing problems.
- Older adults tend to be less active and more sedentary. Some may sit for long periods of time without getting up or may be confined to a wheelchair or bedridden. Constant pressure on the tissues of the body can result in pressure sores or bedsores, which are typically already slow to heal. The constant overwork of the body to try to heal these wounds may make overall wound healing even less efficient and effective.
Treatment Options for Stubborn Wounds
The good news is there are both innovative treatment options for stubborn, persistent wounds and steps that you can take to boost your wound healing ability. On the treatment end of things, if you have a known issue with wound healing and are injured, talk to your doctor about some of your options. Instead of simply putting a bandage on a wound, or stitching it closed, one or more of the following might help speed healing:
- Vacuum-assisted wound closure. The use of vacuum suction as part of the wound closure process can improve healing by removing fluid buildup and stimulating the multiplication and proliferation of healthy cells, along with blood vessel branching and growth.
- Stem cell treatments, though uncommon, are available in some settings. They involve the introduction of stem cells into the wound site to boost cellular regeneration.
- Platelet-rich plasma treatments are becoming more and more common for wound healing. These treatments take a small amount of your blood, spin it to separate the different components, take the platelet portion (often with additives like fibrin to promote healing further), and then return that to the wound site. It forms a matrix or foundation on which tissues can regenerate, greatly speeding healing time, and improving recovery.
- For larger-scale wounds, burns, and other serious injuries, artificial skin, grafts, or cadaver skin may be required. Again, this is not common for most average injuries that one might sustain, but is a treatment option available in certain cases.
Steps You Can Take to Boost Your Wound Healing Ability
There are things you can do at home, both in terms of medications/treatments and lifestyle factors that can improve your wound healing ability, too. Specifically:
- Get any existing medical conditions, especially diabetes or circulation problems, under control with prescribed medications and lifestyle changes.
- Exercise regularly, even if it’s only light walking a few times a week.
- Be sure to drink enough fluids, as dehydration can weaken the skin and tissues still further, increasing the likelihood of injury and decreasing wound healing.
- Address any medication considerations, where wound healing issues are a known side effect, with your healthcare provider.
- Be sure to get up and move and not sit or lay down in the same position for hours without any movement. This will help reduce or eliminate the potential for pressure sores or pressure-based injury.
- Stay off the injured part of your body. If you have a foot injury, don’t try to walk around and strain it.
- Avoid friction on injured areas or on the skin in general. Moisturizing lotion on healthy, uninjured skin can help a great deal.
- Be sure you are eating a balanced diet, full of the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs.
- Take vitamin C and zinc supplements, or a multivitamin supplement with these in it, as they are essential for cellular proliferation and healing.
- Consider topical wound healing creams to both fend off bacteria and promote faster healing.
- Various supplements are available that can boost healing and cellular repair. Consider a growth hormone-releasing peptide, or a healing-focused supplement like BPC-157, which have been shown in animal studiesto improve wound healing speed and effectiveness considerably.
It’s a simple fact that we’re all going to age and see changes in our bodies as we do. Wound healing function absolutely decreases as we get older, for a number of different reasons. Some of those reasons, however, are within your control. You can take action and make choices to mitigate some of the bodily changes associated with aging. This can include lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and exercise, or various supplement products that can boost the healing capabilities of the body. There are also new and exciting wound treatment options for stubborn or serious wounds, which, when combined with the lifestyle and supplement solutions, can address the wound healing issues of the vast majority of older adults.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.
- Ahmed, A. S., Sheng, M. H., Wasnik, S., Baylink, D. J., & Lau, K. W. (2017). Effect of aging on stem cells. World journal of experimental medicine, 7(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.5493/wjem.v7.i1.1
- Medline Plus. (n.d.) Aging changes in skin. Retrieved by https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/004014.htm