Paging Dr. Frischer: Gray Hair

My wife looked in the mirror recently and noticed a few gray hairs. Of course, she immediately blamed our kids. Is stress a factor that triggers gray hair? What actually causes gray hair? Can it be prevented?

 As you might guess, the major culprit is aging. The 50-50-50 rule is a good guideline: 50% of the population has approximately 50% gray hair by age 50. The first silvery strands usually pop up around when a man turns 30, and when a woman turns 35, but graying can begin as early as high school for some and as late as the 50s for others. In time, everyone’s hair turns gray, with the chance of going gray increasing 10-20% every decade after age 30.

Interestingly, blonds like me may appear to lose hair color later in life, because white strands don’t stand out in light hair. However, Caucasians actually tend to gray earlier, with redheads the earliest of all. Asians and African-Americans are the slowest to gray.

It is important to note that hair does not “turn” gray; it grows in gray. A single hair grows for one to three years, and then falls out and a new one grows in. Once that single strand leaves the hair follicle, it stays the same color. However, as we age, the pigment-forming cells in our hair follicles tend to wear out. Consequently, less melanin is produced and new hairs are likely to have less color. There are only two types of pigments: dark (eumelanin) and light (phaeomelanin). They blend together to produce a wide range of hair colors. Without the production of melanin, the new hair will grow in with a silver, white, or gray color. Each and every hair follicle is independent, controlling only one hair, and most scalps have 100,000 to 150,000 hairs.

In addition to age and genetics, lifestyle can indeed be a factor. During a major stressful event, it’s certainly possible that there could be a more rapid hair loss, and many new, perhaps lighter hairs would grow in at around the same time.

Lifestyle factors also include chemical exposure. Many chemicals, including hair coloring, simply coat the hair but do not alter its follicle or structure. However, pollutants, toxins, and chemical exposure can have an impact on hair follicles. Smoking, for example, causes hair follicle damage (and a whole host of other health and beauty problems as well). A 2013 study demonstrated a significant relationship between onset of gray hair before the age of 30 and cigarette smoking.

Nutritional factors such as low levels of vitamin B12, iron, iodine, and protein, are also associated with premature graying of hair. A diet with ample vitamins and antioxidants may also help to protect hair against toxins it encounters.

It appears that when we go gray is determined by age and genetics, but that stress and lifestyle might hasten or delay it by five or ten years. As of now, a simple method to slow the graying process has not been found. However, thanks to all of us aging baby boomers, research is certainly underway!

Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.