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Plastic Surgery: Vanity in Older Age

The pervasive use of surgery to enhance how we look.

Unsatisfied with living longer, some of us also want to look younger. In 2010 the American Society of Plastic Surgeons published national statistics on plastic surgeries. This report tells a story about vanity and the unyielding pursuit of youth.

In 2012 Americans spent $10.1 billion on plastic surgery, more than the 2010 budget for the National Science Foundation (and close to the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency).

The surprise is that following the 40-54 year olds--who account for nearly half of all plastic surgery procedures--the main clients are seniors--those 55 years and older! This older group had more surgeries, cosmetic procedures and minimally invasive procedures than 20-39 year olds.

While most popular procedures among young adults focus on their bodies, older adults are apparently more concerned about more visible features, such as their faces.

Americans aged 55 years and older had 3.3 million cosmetic procedures. Most involved having no surgery at all, opting instead for injections. The most popular procedure--performed 1.2 million times last year--was botox injection, followed by more than a half-million soft tissue fillers (injections of Hyaluronic/polyactic acid, fat, collagen, or calcium hydroxyapalite).

In comparison, for surgeries, nearly a third of these 349,000 procedures involved eyelid surgery (100,000), followed by facelifts (74,000), dermabrasions (27,000), nose reshaping (24,000) and hair transplantation (23,000). Two out of three facelift surgeries in 2010 were performed on patients who were 55 years and older.

Even though plastic surgery might belong primarily to the wealthy, it is no longer the exclusive domain of Whites. Since 2009, all minorities have shown an increase in the use of plastic surgery--up by 6% for African Americans and 2% equally for Latinos and Asian Americans. The trend is one of convergence. While for African Americans the top procedures include liposuction, nose reshaping and breast reduction, for Asian-Americans it is breast enlargement, nose reshaping and eyelid surgery. Latinos’ top procedures include breast enlargement, liposuction and nose reshaping.

Apparently, Americans of all races share a fixation with physical appearance--one that seems to increase as we age. Do we think we can cheat death by looking younger? In a seven-year study led by Kaare Christensen of the University of Southern Denmark, researchers found that people who looked younger lived longer. Their report published in 2009, asked people to guess the age from photographs of faces of 387 pairs of twins in their 70s, 80s or 90s. They found that the older looking twin is more likely to die first. Surprisingly, the older looking twin also had shorter telomeres--telomere length indicates cell longevity, the longer the telomere the longer the cell will live.

Does plastic surgery, by making us look younger, also “teach” our telomeres to grow? Probably not.

People who have had a tougher life are more likely to have such stress etched in their faces, while at the same time the stress shortens their telomeres. We might modify how our faces look, but those telomeres are still getting shorter.

Love Thyself