Get To The Root Of Going Gray

Hairs: Graying is a natural part of aging - but scientists don't fully know why it happens or if it can be prevented.

Medicine & Science

January 26, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Dr. Laurence J. Meyer found a foolproof way of getting rid of the gray hair that hijacked his mustache when he was about 35: He shaved it off.

It took another five years for the hair on his head to start losing its color. Now that he is in his 50s, the dermatology professor at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center is reconciled to the salt-and-pepper look - though he keeps a keen eye on the direction of the gray creep. "It's getting more and more, coming in at the temples," he said.

This time, shaving is not an option.

However unwelcome it may be, the arrival of gray or white is a natural - and inevitable - part of aging. But researchers do not fully understand why it happens and whether it can be reversed or, better yet, prevented.

"So little is known about gray hair it's pathetic," said Dr. Vera Price, director of the Hair Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco. "For those who don't like it, we have very good coloring."

The onset of gray is determined primarily by genes, though environmental and lifestyle factors might also play a role. It is generally considered premature when it happens before the age of 20 in whites and 30 in blacks. Going gray "early" can happen for a number of reasons, including a thyroid imbalance, severe anemia or a deficiency of vitamin B-12, among other conditions.

But graying, in most cases, is nothing more than normal aging process. Men usually see it first in their beards, then around the temples, then at the top of the head, on toward the back. Women tend to see single strands of gray here and there instead of patches. And here's some good news: Plucking out a lone gray hair won't make more than one grow back.

The average head has 100,000 or more hairs, which are made of the protein keratin. Each grows out of a tube of tissue under the skin called a follicle, which contains specialized pigment cells responsible for producing melanin. That's the chemical that gives hair its color. Blondes and redheads have a variant called pheomelanin; those with brown or black hair have eumelanin.

As people age, the number of pigment cells, or melanocytes, decreases until a few are left. Once a person is 30 percent gray, he or she is probably about seven years away from being totally so.

A 1996 study in the British Medical Journal suggested a link between premature graying and smoking in both men and women. (The research gave men even less reason to smoke: The habit corresponded to balding as well.)

Stress may likewise influence the onset of graying. Marie Antoinette was said to have gone white after learning of her death sentence. Over the past two centuries, medical literature has noted many such cases, including a mother whose hair turned snow-white in a few hours after she learned her child had been injured in a serious car accident.

A 21-year-old woman suffering from dementia developed a 3-centimeter streak of white hair during a spell of seizures, according to a 1904 article mentioned in the Archives of Dermatology. Examined under a microscope, the hair had more air bubbles than normal. Once it was immersed in water and the bubbles escaped, the hair regained its normal color.

Despite all the anecdotes, the rapid-whitening phenomenon - be it overnight or in the course of a few weeks or months - is still a matter of debate among researchers.

Dr. Tyler Cymet, a family physician at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore who has studied the graying process, said the most widely accepted explanation blames hair loss, which can accelerate during periods of mental or physical stress.

"You lose your thick [colored] hairs and the thin, whiter hairs become more apparent," he said.

The body has enough melanin for about seven growth cycles, each lasting from two to 10 years, Cymet said. When you're stressed, your body doesn't waste energy on hair production. That can cause the follicles to shrivel up, prompting the older, pigmented hairs to fall out.

Utah's Meyer notes that humans aren't the only ones to lose their hair color. Some dogs go gray around their muzzles (cats, for their part, seem immune). He said it is unclear if graying has any evolutionary advantage but pointed out that, if the change happens after reproduction, there's no evolutionary argument for or against it.

Meyer's patients treat him like something of a seer when it comes to gray hair. "My mother is gray, what does that mean [for me]?" they ask. "Will my kids go gray?"

They also want to know how to cover it up.

Indeed, as insistent as the body is on turning hair gray, millions of people are just as insistent on turning it back. Nothing on the market can restart melanin production - though Meyer said a relatively new cancer drug, Gleevec, has restored color to some graying patients' hair.

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