New research by British scientists has found that heavy wrinkles on the faces of smokers may be an early warning sign of a serious lung disease.
The researchers at the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation in southwest England found that smokers with pronounced wrinkles are five times more likely than those without marked facial lines to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
COPD is an umbrella term for a range of progressive chronic lung diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis, which block the airways and restrict oxygen flow around the body.
COPD is a major cause of death worldwide and is caused by smoking, which also prematurely ages the skin; the researchers were interested to see whether there was a link between the two.
Dr. Bipen Patel who conducted the study says they found that cigarette smokers who had a large amount of facial wrinkling were five times more likely to have COPD than smokers who were less wrinkled.
COPD begins with a persistent cough and increased mucous and eventually leads to fatigue, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing as the lungs are destroyed.
The disease develops gradually and Patel and his team believe facial wrinkling could be an a sign of the illness before it is diagnosed.
The researchers studied 149 former and current middle-aged smokers and compared how much they smoked during their lifetime and their sun exposure, which also damages the skin.
Then two dermatologists scored the severity of wrinkling from photographs of the smokers and breathing tests and scans were also done to detect any signs of COPD.
According to the scientists the smokers who were the most wrinkled were far more likely to have changes in their lungs suggesting COPD, and they suggest there could be an unknown common mechanism linking COPD and wrinkling.
Facial wrinkling was also associated with triple the risk of more severe emphysema.
The World Health Organisation estimates COPD will become the third-biggest cause of death worldwide by 2020 and they say deaths from COPD are increasing in most countries.
One million people are thought to have COPD in the UK.
As a rule the illness afflicts people over 40 who have been smoking for many years and is a factor in other disorders such as pneumonia, heart disease and stroke.
Although there is no cure for COPD, treatment can relieve the symptoms and therapies to slow its progression are currently being tested.
The study is published in the journal Thorax.