When is a wrinkle more than just a wrinkle? When it's a crucial clue to what's going on with your body.
Your epidermis is showing—and it's trying to tell you something. It turns out that the body's largest organ is an excellent early warning system for all sorts of maladies: "Almost every health condition translates to the skin," says Francesca Fusco, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "When something isn't functioning well on the inside, the clues start appearing on the outside." Give yourself a quick check for these five surprising signs.
If you have: Many deep wrinkles It could mean: A heightened risk for bone fractures
In a new study on 114 postmenopausal women, researchers discovered that subjects who had numerous deep wrinkles on their neck and face were more likely to have low bone density in their hips, spine, and heels. "The collagen in your skin is the same as the collagen in your skeleton," explains lead researcher Lubna Pal, of the Yale School of Medicine. "So a loss of collagen can result in both wrinkles and bone deterioration." Ask your doctor about a bone density scan. If you are at risk for osteoporosis, exercise, calcium, vitamin D, and drugs called bisphosphonates can help slow bone loss.
If you have: Velvety, brownish-gray patches of skin It could mean: Diabetes
Called acanthosis nigricans, this kind of discoloration commonly appears in creases and folds around the groin, underarms, and the neck; it can be an early warning sign for type 2 diabetes—a disease that can involve elevated levels of the hormone insulin. (Excess insulin circulating in the blood may trigger abnormal growth in skin cells.) Dermatologists can sometimes diagnose acanthosis nigricans just by looking at your skin. The next step would be to see an internist for a diabetes test. If the result is positive, your doctor can recommend lifestyle changes and medication to manage the disease.
If you have: Dull, dry skin It could mean: A deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s are famous for their health perks: They support brain function, reduce inflammation, and can help lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. "They also play a vital role in skin," Fusco says, "strengthening cell membranes and regulating cell turnover, which ensures skin stays hydrated and radiant." A deficiency can slow the natural exfoliation cycle, resulting in dryness—even dandruff. The best way to get omega-3s is from your diet. Eat plenty of salmon, sardines, flaxseeds, walnuts, and soybeans, all of which are rich in fatty acids.
Severe, persistent itchiness—triggered by an overabundance of abnormal cells circulating in the bloodstream—can be a very early sign of these two types of cancer. "It's not a normal itch. It feels like something is underneath your skin," Fusco says—and neither over-the-counter anti-itch creams nor antihistamines offer relief. If you notice other symptoms, like painless swelling of the lymph nodes, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and shortness of breath, see your doctor. When caught early, these cancers can have a good prognosis.
If you have: Discoloration or swelling of your lower legs It could mean: Venous insufficiency
Once blood flows down to your legs, your veins have to pump it back up to your body's core. Veins that are not working properly struggle to transport blood against gravity, so the blood collects in the lower legs, causing redness and swelling. A variety of conditions may be the cause. Make an appointment with an internist to begin pinpointing the problem.