Gray hair creeps up on you — sometimes literally. I was in my 30s, sporting a full beard, when I first noticed a few gray hairs appearing. Then there were more than just a few. It wasn’t long before the lumberjack image was beginning to give way to something closer to Old Father Time.
It wasn’t just the image that bothered me. It was the way I felt. Sure, gray hair is supposed to make men look distinguished. To give them gravitas. Look at Bill Clinton. Look at the baby-faced newsman Anderson Cooper, whose prematurely gray hair must have helped him land a job as a CNN anchor.
Men rarely see Thomas J. Weida, MD, for medical tests without prodding from a wife or girlfriend. When they do show up, Weida jokes that he “can see the drag marks on the carpet.”
It’s amusing, of course. But it can quickly turn serious when a man ignores important symptoms. Weida says he knows of men who got away with ignoring chest pain for a couple of weeks. Eventually, though, they died of heart attacks.
But gray hair can also make you look older than you feel — or are. “Gray hairs are like angels sent by the god of death,” according to the teachings of Buddha. Or, as Cooper quipped, “Translation: Gray is nature’s way of whispering, ‘You’re dying.’”
Off went the beard.
“Wow, you look a lot younger,” friends said — until gray hairs started sprouting up through the dark brown of my sideburns and then wending their way up into my temples. Salt-and-pepper, I told myself. A little gray can be sexy. Look at George Clooney. If he’s okay with turning gray, why should I fret? Why? Well, look at him. Clooney would look terrific sporting a Mohawk and wearing sackcloth. The increasingly gray-haired reflection staring back at me in the mirror, on the other hand…
It was time to do some investigating.
Causes of gray hair still a gray area
Gray hair may be one of the most common signs of aging, I discovered, but researchers still aren’t completely sure why it happens. One of the world’s leading experts on gray hair is Desmond Tobin, PhD, a researcher at the University of Bradford in England. When I contacted him, he graciously sent along a sheaf of scientific papers with titles like “Graying: gerontobiology of the hair follicle pigmenting unit” and “Hair cycle and hair pigmentation: dynamic interactions and changes associated with aging.”
I dug in, encouraged to discover that science is taking gray hair so seriously.
The gist of what I learned is this: A shaft of hair is basically colorless. Cells in the follicle, called melanocytes, add pigment. The pigment, called melanin, comes in two basic varieties — eumelanin and phaeomelanin — which combine in different proportions to create the vast range of hair colors, from jet black to ash blonde. For a long time researchers assumed that, with age, melanocytes simply become less efficient at making pigment. That may be partly true. But recent studies at Harvard University have shown that age brings a steady decline in the number of these pigment-producing cells.
Contrary to popular belief, having kids or a stressful job won’t turn hair gray. But oxidation, the damaging effect of unstable oxygen molecules — which have been linked to many aspects of aging — may be one of the causes of gray hair. Researchers at Humboldt University in Berlin reported in 2006 that the process of synthesizing melanin generates a slew of unstable oxygen molecules. When the Humboldt team exposed healthy and productive pigment-producing hair follicle cells to oxidation, the cells began to die off.
Of course heredity plays some role, since premature graying tends to run in families. And there are racial differences, too. Among white males, hair typically starts turning gray in the mid 30s, according to Tobin. In Asians, it begins in the late 30s, and in African-Americans, in the mid 40s. From then on, the chances of turning gray increase by 10 to 20% each decade. Tobin says, “A well-known rule of thumb in the field of graying hair is that by the age of 50, 50% of the population has 50% gray hairs.”