In my teens and twenties, I relished the sun. I splayed myself under it every chance I got, encouraging my skin to turn a nutty brown, bragging about the depth of my tans and the intensity of my sunburns. Dried, peeling skin, mounting moles and freckles, the threat of skin cancer—I had no fear of such things. All I knew was as soon as the weather permitted, I was out on a beach towel in the sunniest spot I could find, with nary an SPF on my person.
Then I went to Cancun and discovered that my skin was clearly not as resilient as I believed it to be. I shunned sunscreen, as usual, and baked for hours under the searing Caribbean sun. The result was a blistering sunburn; to this day, I still have scars from it and can point out the rashes of freckles that resulted from it. It was a sunburn that kept me wrapped in damp towel in the shade for the remainder of the trip, and that has since inspired me to slather 45 SPF sunscreen on every inch of exposed skin every time I leave the house.
But the damage is done. The wrinkles have appeared, then deepened; the freckles and moles have darkened; my skin has lost its youthful elasticity. All because I spent more than half my life considering sunscreen “optional.”
Bad Habits Die Hard
Many of us arrive at our mid-thirties suffering from a sort of extended hangover caused by the indiscretions of our younger days. Here are just a few ways we might come to regret some of our activities:
Smoking Cigarettes: Let’s bypass for a moment such weightier concerns as cancer and heart disease and focus on how smoking might challenge your vanity. Smoking depletes the supplies of collagen in your skin, thereby aiding in the creation and deepening of wrinkles. Furthermore, the four thousand toxins found in your average brand of cigarettes are carried directly to your epidermal structure by your bloodstream, causing a thickening of the blood vessels close to the surface of your skin, reducing the supply of oxygen to your largest organ. This will help ensure that your laugh lines become far more than evidence of your constant mirth.
Drinking: Heavy drinking can create all sorts of nutritional deficiencies, including, but not limited to, deficiencies in iron, protein, and calcium—all elements that are essential to overall health. Compromising your body’s ability to maintain proper levels of these elements can result in osteoporosis, low body weight, and infertility. Basically, you will be guaranteed to look and feel old, unhealthy, and frail.
Sunbathing: How about a vocabulary lesson of sunbathing’s effects that will have you investing in SPF 50 in economy-size amounts? Telangiectasias, or tiny blood vessels that appear under the surface of the skin, especially the face, in purplish-red starburst patterns; solar lentigo, otherwise known as extra-huge freckles; and seborrheic keratoses, which are wartlike blemishes that rise up on the skin. All of this courtesy of UV radiation, which is, of course, a key ingredient in all that delightful sunshine. While the sun in moderate amounts, as with many things, is necessary to good health, too much of a good thing can have ugly effects. Was the perfect tan worth it? Rather, let’s hope you put on the sunscreen and the hat before it came to all of that.
Junk Food: While it may have become clear to you that your metabolism isn’t what it once was, those Doritos you could hardly resist might stick with you even longer than you think. Monosodium glutamate, known commonly as MSG and found in an array of food items (mostly of the junk/fast-food variety), has been linked with dozens of health problems, one of the biggest being that it spikes insulin and encourages overeating. Also called by hard-to-pronounce names such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, plant protein extract, and sodium caseinate, MSG has been linked to insulin dysfunction in adults and in the offspring of mothers who consume MSG, not to mention it inhibits the hormone functions that help prevent obesity, premature aging, and diabetes. Yum.
Bad Money Management: So many of us in our thirties and forties are still reaping the whirlwind of the quick-credit era that started in the early ’90s. But the credit card payments are just one part of the problem; the average credit card debt per household is upwards of $15,000, which, in total, comprises 98 percent of the $853 billion U.S. revolving debt. With some APRs reaching into the 15–20 percent range, it’s almost assured that reckless spending of yours in your twenties will stick with you even longer than you thought.
“Youth is wasted on the young,” they say. But that is true only in a sense. When referring to the wayward behavior of those who have not yet reached an age at which they gain appropriate experience and perspective, then maybe it makes less sense. It’s when we’re young, in the full throes of the delusion of our immortality, that we smoke, we drink, we spend money wildly (whether we have it or not), we eat whatever we like, we exercise sporadically, choosing less routine rigors to keep our bodies in shape. No one can live so entirely in the moment the way the average tween can. Just because they lack the perspective to properly appreciate the spryness of their existence certainly doesn’t mean their vigor is wasted on them.
Probably the biggest way our old habits continue to haunt us has to do with the fluidity of youth, which can often trick us into bad practices that might stick with us in one way or another as we live through our thirties. Think of the life stage of someone in her early twenties. She is likely either in college or recently graduated; either way, she is a free agent, on her own for the first time, and the world and all its unhealthful enticements are hers for the taking. You might chalk it up to a “phase,” but psychology suggests that leaving the behaviors one develops at this age safely in the past is nearly impossible.
Still, that doesn’t keep us from having to grow up and face the infinite consequences of our infinite decisions, good and bad. And it certainly doesn’t do anyone any good to go through her adult life regretting all of her wayward behavior. It’s a much better thing to learn what you need to and take those lessons with you as you encounter new temptations, familiar and unfamiliar—we only live once, and all that. Best not to waste too much of it worrying. But enough worrying to see to it that you live full and long—now, that’s something worth paying attention to.