Special Report

'Harmless' Habits That Are Actually Aging You Much Faster Than You Think

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Barring factors outside of our control, the key to living a long life is simple — at first glance. Eat a healthy and balanced diet, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, and get between six and eight hours of sleep. But the reality is a lot more complicated.

There is so much more we do during the day that affects our longevity. What we do to and with our body has a significant impact on how we feel — and how we look.

24/7 Tempo consulted a neurologist, a dermatologist, and a chiropractor to identify 21 habits most people think are harmless and even healthy that actually speed up aging.

Most people know that they shouldn’t watch TV or be on their phone while in bed because these actions disrupt sleep. But they may be surprised to find out the skin gets damaged, too. The lights that our devices emit can augment wrinkles over long periods of cumulative exposure, making the skin look aged. Wearing a hat is always a good idea, but hats should not replace sunglasses, which provide more protection to the eyes and areas around the eyes that may not be in consistent shade.

The skin is one of the first organs that will show signs of aging — wrinkles, fine lines, dryness, discoloration — but it’s not the only one. Our brain, lungs, eyes, and ears can also be damaged by what we do or don’t do. (Biting your nails and other habits could be a sign of a serious problem with them.)

To compile a list of common and often assumed harmless habits that actually accelerate premature aging, 24/7 Tempo consulted a neurologist, a dermatologist, and a chiropractor. We also reviewed information from organizations specializing in skin health such as the International Dermal Institute.

1. Checking your phone all the time

You may think this is a good habit because you are up-to-date with the news and stay in touch with hundreds of people, but you are not doing your neck, or skin any favors. Looking down at your phone for too long can eventually lead to “tech neck,” which can cause ongoing pain, according to Daryl Gioffre, a chiropractor and founder of the Gioffre Chiropractic Wellness Center in New York. This tilted position of the head can lead to stress injuries and muscle strain in the long-term, he explained.

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2. Using your phone for everything

Today’s phones are multi-functional devices — they are alarms, computers, navigation systems, calendars, TVs, games, and more. Recent research has shown that 36% of teenagers and 26% of parents wake up to check their mobile devices for something other than the time at least once a night.

Overuse of technology can eventually lead to what is now called “digital dementia.” The term was first used by German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer in 2012 to describe how being so attached to our mobile devices can result in the breakdown of cognitive abilities similar to people who have suffered a head injury or mental illness, including short-term memory loss.

3. Applying sunscreen only in the summer

“Although the UV rays may be less intense in the winter, they are always present and pass through clouds,” said Dr. Heather Richmond, a dermatologist at the Dermatology and Laser Surgery Center in Houston.

Damage from UV radiation is cumulative throughout your lifetime and causes gradual photoaging — wrinkles, loss of elasticity, brown spots, and uneven skin tone. “Additionally, UV radiation causes damage to the DNA in our skin cells and may ultimately result in skin cancer,” Richmond said. Daily sunscreen 365 days per year is critical to protect your skin against these changes, she noted.

4. Wearing a hat instead of sunglasses

Hats are always helpful for protection of the scalp, face, and neck from the sun. “However, sunglasses are recommended as well since, depending on the angle, the eyes or areas around the eyes may not be in consistent shade, depending on which hat is used,” Richmond said. “In addition to protecting against fine lines around the eyes, sunglasses also protect the eye itself from sun damage, which can lead to [vision] changes,” she added.

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5. Listening to loud music

Most people will turn up the volume when a song they like is on. It’s fun and enhances the experience, right? But listening to loud music with your headphones for a long period of time may increase the risk of noise induced hearing loss, a condition where sensitive structures in the inner ear are damaged by loud sounds. The condition affects up to 40 million adults in the U.S.

6. Not stimulating your brain

The brain is like a muscle and it needs to be exercised, said Dr. Glen Finney, neurologist at Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Make the brain practice and learn new things to keep it young and healthy, he added.

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7. Sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time

You may think you’re relaxing, which is absolutely necessary and a good thing. But you have to get up every half an hour or so to “reset your posture,” according to Gioffre. The muscles in your back become deconditioned from sitting too much. When that happens, they can’t hold the spine in proper alignment, which is what causes bad posture, he explained. So get up every 30 minutes and put your hands together behind your back to form the letter U, Gioffre said. “This stimulates the muscle between your shoulder blades and you reset your posture without even thinking about it.”

8. Thinking you don’t need sunscreen everywhere

“I think the most important places that people forget to apply sunscreen are the ears and the back of the neck,” Richmond said. These are extremely common sites for skin cancer, particularly in people who don’t have hair covering naturally these areas, she noted. For daily sunscreen and anti-aging prevention, most people are good at applying it to their faces, but they should also think about including the neck, chest, hands, and back of arms because these areas are often neglected and can show photoaging (premature aging of the skin caused by UV rays) even when the face looks youthful, Richmond explained.

9. Exercising without stretching

Stretching is very important because otherwise muscles go into a contracted state from sitting, leading to cells aging faster, which eventually leads to wrinkles, Gioffre explained. “Foam rolling is even more effective because it goes one step further.” It’s like a massage that releases the tension in crushed muscle fibers and oxygenates the muscles, he explained. “More oxygen in the tissues means less wrinkling.” What can also avoid wrinkles is avoiding straws — it’s one of 20 mistakes you may be aging you.

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10. Sleeping on your side

About 41% of people sleep in the so-called fetal position — on their side with their legs curled up — and another 15% sleep on their side with legs not curled, according to the National Sleep Foundation. It’s a very common position. But there is a dark side to it. “People commonly have deeper wrinkles on the side of their face that they sleep on if they are side or stomach sleepers,” Richmond said. This is a result of pressure over time. “Generally, it is a mild difference, and not dramatic enough that I would tell people to avoid certain sleeping positions.” However, if patients are very bothered by a particular asymmetry, it’s reasonable to try to avoid sleeping face down on that side, which may provide some modest benefit over time, she noted.

11. Not breathing from the belly

Breathe in, breathe out. It seems simple enough. After all, it’s an instinct. But there are several ways to breathe and one of them is better than the rest, according to the American Lung Association. You should breathe in through the nose because the nostrils filter, warm, and humidify the air. That doesn’t happen when you breathe in through the mouth. Also, you have to involve the belly. Belly breathing — when breathing moves from the nose to the belly as the diaphragm expands — creates negative pressure in the chest, making way for the air to fill the lungs. More oxygen in the lungs increases lung capacity (which usually naturally decreases with age.)

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12. Using tanning booths

Tanning has been closely associated with the development of all skin cancers, including melanoma, which can be very serious and potentially deadly, according to Richmond. “I am seeing much more melanoma and basal cell carcinoma in young women as early as their 20s and 30s who have a history of tanning.” In addition to increasing the risk of skin cancer, tanning dramatically accelerates the aging of the skin, resulting in earlier wrinkles, uneven skin tone, persistent redness, and brown spots, she explained.

13. Drinking anything but water

Sugary beverages, such as sodas and most fruit juices, which are loaded with sugar, can accelerate cell aging. Excessive sugar (as well as salt) dehydrates body cells, including skin cells. Wrinkles can occur as a result of dehydration, and the best way to stay hydrated is to drink a lot of water. As a result of dehydration, loss of collagen and elasticity can lead to sagging skin and loss of hyaluronic acid, both of which can hurt the skin’s ability to retain water. This makes fine lines and skin scaling even more apparent.

14. Multitasking

Working on five tasks at the same time probably makes you feel productive and accomplished — but it comes at a cost. Multitasking can actually hinder productivity and increase stress and fatigue. Research has shown that chronic stress shortens DNA telomeres, causing premature cellular aging. How exactly chronic stress damages the skin is not clear, but higher cortisol — also known as the “stress hormone” — levels and changes in the cells are possible reasons. Stress and 16 other things can also lead to memory loss.

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15. Rubbing your eyes

No one can argue that rubbing your eyes is not a natural reaction to being tired. It’s almost instinctive and it feels good. However, as is the case with most habits, a problem occurs when it’s chronic. The issue with rubbing your eyes all the time is the sensitivity of the skin around them. It’s one of the places where aging signs first appear. The pressure applied to the skin can break small blood vessels, leading to the formation of dark circles and drooping eyelids.

16. Losing weight too fast

Most people want to lose weight very fast — as in 10 pounds in one week. And while it’s technically possible, it’s extremely unhealthy. “The body needs to lose weight at a healthy paste,” said Gioffre, who is also a celebrity nutritionist. “Otherwise, the body’s chemistry is off, electrolytes are off balance, and the skin sags.” Extreme limited-nutrition diets do more harm than good. While some weight loss may be a desired result, it comes at a steep price, including possible higher risk of dehydration, malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, and muscle loss. The skin is among the first organs to suffer.

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17. Avoiding fatty foods

You may be thinking that you’re doing your body a favor by not exposing it to fat, but this is not entirely true. You should avoid trans fats, which can wreak havoc on your body, but your body needs healthy fats, especially essential fatty acids (EFAs). Certain foods are rich in essential fatty acids, including fish, nuts, avocado, eggs, chia seeds, olive oil, and some fortified foods. Omega-3s and omega-6s fatty acids are also essential for building healthy cells. They help produce the skin’s natural oil, which keeps it hydrated and glowing.

18. Exercising too much

No one is arguing that exercise is bad for you. Research has shown that a lifetime of regular exercise can actually slow down aging. But overdoing it doesn’t have the same effect. Working out hard for too long puts the body in a stress mode. Stress makes the body release cortisol, which may break down elastin and collagen, two major proteins in the skin that keep it healthy, tight, and plump. Lack of these proteins can accelerate aging and make the skin dry and wrinkly.

19. Staring at electronic devices

Americans now spend more time on their mobile devices than watching TV. You may not have thought about it, but this affects your skin. “Although the majority of skin damage comes from UV light, we now know that other wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum can contribute to breakdown of collagen and elastin fibers and result in more rapid aging,” Richmond said. These wavelengths include high energy visible light (HEV), which is in the blue/violet colors and infrared light. The visible light wavelengths are emitted from devices such as phones and computers, and they may theoretically augment wrinkles over long periods of cumulative exposure, Richmond explained. HEV may also flare photosensitive skin conditions such as melasma or lupus, she added.

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20. Taking hot showers

Hot showers, especially in the winter, feel great. But the hot water removes natural oils and moisture from the skin. Dry skin can ultimately result in itchiness, redness, scaling, and can make eczema worse. Dermatologists recommend short showers with lukewarm water.

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