Above: Get out and have fun — just be sure to keep your skin safe! Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay.

If you’re alive at 65, you have a lot to be grateful for, and probably a lot more living to do.

Most people who reach that age can expect to live, on average, two more decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But remember, we want to remain in good health and continue to take care of ourselves during those 20 years.

doctor and patientJuly is UV Safety Month, so let’s take a look at one common problem facing us as we age: skin cancer. Most skin cancers are found in people older than 65 and UV, or ultraviolet, light from the sun is the most common cause of skin cancer. About 5 million people in the United States will be treated for skin cancer this year, at a cost of $8.1 billion.

There are good reasons why older adults are at higher risk of developing skin cancer. For one thing, UV damage builds up over time. The longer you live, the more exposure you will accumulate.

Second, our generation didn’t grow up with “sunscreen” warnings. During our teen years, we likely applied baby oil before sunbathing — it was fashionable at that time. In fact, when I was growing up on the West Coast, it became popular to add iodine to the oil to “boost” the tanning effect. Since moving to Georgia, I’ve learned my Floridian counterparts did much the same thing.

We can’t correct all the damage we did during our teens, but we can benefit by taking care of what we have.

The good news is there are simple ways to protect your skin and reduce your risk of damage from UV light. Although we are talking about seniors, the guidelines fit almost every generation.

You can protect your skin by:

  • Avoiding periods of direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when possible.
  • Using sunscreen with the SPF minimum of 15 or more when you are in direct sunlight.
  • Wearing a hat and lightweight shirt with long sleeves to protect your arms from exposure.
  • Checking your skin, at least once a month, for any changes.
Nokuthula Msimanga
Dr. Nokuthula Msimanga
Courtesy of Northside Hospital

Dr. Nokuthula Msimanga is a board-certified physician in family medicine, geriatrics and palliative medicine with Northside Hospital in Cherokee. She shared how best to protect aging skin.

Q: How often should seniors see a dermatologist?

A: The American Cancer Society recommends monthly self-examinations and annual doctor visits to screen for potential skin cancer. For patients that are higher risk, more frequent dermatology visits are recommended.

Q: Is there a difference among different skin tones (e.g., will darker skin offer more protection and less skin cancer?)

A: There is a myth that people with darker skin tones are immune to skin cancer. This is not true. People with darker skin tones and African Americans do get skin cancer. According to the American College of Dermatology, people with darker skin tones often do not receive a diagnosis until the cancer is in later stages. Symptoms are harder to recognize in darker skin tone. This is why it is important to check your skin on a regular basis to assess abnormal growths or changes.

Q: What should we look for?

A: Diagnosing skin cancer or changes in your skin begins with a visual examination. When doing monthly exams, it is important to check each spot for any unusual growths and changes in their size, shape or color. It is important to report any changes to your primary care provider or to your dermatologist for further evaluation or testing.

Eye Protection

UV rays can also cause eye problems. According to the American Cancer Society, “They can cause the cornea (on the front of the eye) to become inflamed or burned.” They also can also lead to the formation of cataracts, which cloud the lens, or tissue growth on the surface of the eye. Both conditions can impair vision.

The CDC reminds us that sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays offer the best eye protection. Most sunglasses sold in the U.S., regardless of cost, will meet this standard. The “wrap-sound” style work nicely because they block the side entrance of UV sun rays.

“Diseases like cataracts and eye cancers can take many years to develop, but each time we’re out in the sun without protection, we could be adding damage and increasing our risk for these serious disorders,” the American Academy of  Ophthalmology says on its website.

The UV “take-away” message from Johns Hopkins Medicine is a good reminder in that: “Everybody needs some sun exposure to produce vitamin D (which helps with calcium absorption for stronger, healthier bones).” But unprotected exposure to UV rays can cause damage to the skin, eyes and body, and this damage can lead to skin cancer or premature skin aging.

So, as you head outside this summer, enjoy the sun, but be careful. Slather on the sunscreen and wear a hat.

Medicare Info

Medicare does not cover screening for skin cancer in asymptomatic people.

It does, however, cover a physician visit initiated by a concerned patient who has noticed, for example, a change in the color of a mole (clinically described as a pigmented nevus or, more generally, skin lesion), or a new skin growth.

Similarly, if a physician notices such a suspicious sign during a visit for another purpose and extends the visit to investigate further, Medicare may pay more for the visit if it meets certain criteria for a higher level “evaluation and management service” (which is Medicare payment terminology for a physician visit).

In either situation, if the patient is referred to a dermatologist for further assessment, that referral visit is also covered.

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.