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Have You Ever Wondered: Why Does Hair Turn Gray?

Posted by Elder Health Plans, January 12, 2021

We’re all accustomed to seeing it, but most of us just assume that graying hair is simply a part of life. That’s true, but have you ever wondered why it happens?

Known as canities or achromotrichia, greying hair often appears in the mid-thirties to early forties. By age 50 it is not uncommon for an individual to have hair that is at least half gray.

Normally, our hair follicles contain cells called melanocytes that produce pigments called eumelanin or pheomelanin. Which pigments you have in your hair is determined by your DNA, with eumelanin found in black or brown hair and pheomelanin found in blonde or red hair. These pigments degrade more slowly than those found in skin, which is why your hair keeps its color as it grows. Otherwise, each individual strand would fade before its normal life span of about 3.5 years.

Over time, individuals stop producing as many melanocytes. So, strands of hair lacking color pigment begin to sprout. In those of Caucasian descent, this process can begin in their thirties, but those of Asian or African descent often notice this change somewhat later.

Even though graying hair is associated with aging, it is luckily not linked to life span in any way! Scientists have studied the issue and found no correlation between early gray hairs and a shorter lifespan.

However, some studies have seemed to suggest that certain lifestyle changes might slow down the appearance of gray hair. Adequate vitamin B12 intake can prevent premature gray hair, as can smoking cessation and stress management.

Despite some anecdotal evidence that certain medications reverse the appearance of gray hair, no medical treatments exist that can safely address the loss of pigmentation. For now, we can simply accept gray hair as a sign of increasing wisdom or schedule an easy trip to the hair salon.

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