top of page

5 Things You Should Know about Gray Hair and Aging


gray-hair-and-aging

“In that one silver hair, I saw reflected my life’s work, my factory, my beloved Oompa-Loompas. Who would watch over them when I was gone? I realized in that moment, ‘I must find an heir.’”

This iconic reflection from none other than Willy Wonka himself encapsulates a moment of realization that resonates far beyond the confines of a chocolate factory. It’s a vivid illustration of how, in pop culture and beyond, the discovery of gray hair often heralds the personal confrontation of aging.


The sight of gray hair as a harbinger of old age is so ingrained in our collective psyche that the term “silver tsunami” frequently makes waves across top news outlets and academic journals alike, depicting the demographic shift towards a world where, by 2030, 1 in 6 people will be aged 60 or over [1].


While the term “tsunami” might not be the most flattering  —  hinting more at catastrophe than opportunity  —  the expression as a whole doesn’t exactly hit the mark since gray hair, of course, isn’t just for older ages.


With premature graying, young folks can find themselves sporting silver threads much earlier than expected  —  before 20 in Whites, 25 in Asians, and 30 in Africans [2]. That’s just one bit of nuance in the ever-intriguing relationship between gray hair and aging.


But before we dig any deeper, let’s cover some basics first, starting with why hair turns gray in the first place.


What Makes Hair Go Gray?


Hair color is determined by melanocyte stem cells located near the hair root. On an average head, there are about 150,000 hairs. Each hair lasts about seven years before taking a bow and making room for a newcomer.


When a hair falls out and a new one starts to grow, some melanocyte stem cells activate, differentiate into melanocytes, and move to the hair root. There, they inject the melanin pigment into the growing hair.


Over time, these melanocyte stem cells either become melanocytes or disappear. This reduces the melanin available for new hair, leading to gray hair, which has less melanin, and white hair, which has none [3].


Gray Hair Risk Factors


Hair turning gray is associated with genetics, playing a role in when and how fast graying happens [4].


Yet, several factors can speed up the process. Among them are smoking, lacking vitamins like B12, folic acid, and B7, and not having enough minerals such as calcium and ferritin. Other contributors include obesity, high blood pressure, not exercising enough, certain medications, genetic conditions, thyroid issues, and changes in liver function [4].


And of course, there’s our main focus of today: aging. After hitting 30, it’s estimated that melanin production drops by 10 to 20 percent each decade. By age 50, half of all people will have at least 50 percent gray hair [5].


As we’ve been hinting from the get-go, this interplay between gray hair and aging is not only fascinating but also carries significant implications for personal health and the longevity industry at large. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the five things you should know about gray hair and aging.


1- Gray Hair Is Not Associated with Reduced Longevity


On our blog, we frequently examine the impact of various factors on all-cause mortality. Remember when we did so for dietary fiber intake, low self-perceived health, and perfectionism?


Well, for those of us sporting silver strands, there’s good news: gray hair isn’t linked to higher all-cause mortality rates.


Delving into this topic, the Copenhagen City Heart Study investigated the relationship between signs of aging, including gray hair, and mortality. This comprehensive study, involving 20,000 men and women, assessed aging signs like gray hair, baldness, and facial wrinkles. Their findings? The presence of gray hair, along with other aging signs, doesn’t predict a shorter lifespan [6].


Yet, when we shift the focus to the relationship between healthspan and gray hair, the story takes a more intricate turn, which we’ll explore in the next section.


2- Gray Hair May Be a Marker for Age-Related Disease


Gray hair might not spell out our lifespan, but it could be hinting at health issues and age-related diseases. The same Copenhagen Study made a connection between gray hair and an increased risk of heart disease, specifically myocardial infarction [7]. But the plot thickens beyond the Danish borders — a study in Egypt linked gray hair to a higher chance of coronary artery disease [8].


Other studies have suggested that early graying could indicate a higher risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes [9] [10].


However, it’s important to approach these findings with caution. A chapter dedicated to gray hair in a comprehensive book on population aging raises two significant points. First, the relationship between gray hair and the aforementioned diseases might be confounded by shared risk factors like genetics and age. Secondly, is it the chicken or the egg? It’s possible, for example, that factors leading to heart disease could also cause hair to gray prematurely. Thus, further research on causality is required to clarify the complex relationship [11].


3- Gray Hair Can Be Associated with Stress


If we look at pop culture again, there’s no shortage of stories where stress and trauma induce the graying of hair. A landmark Harvard study hints that that effect might not be as fictional as we used to think [12].


The study zeroed in on melanocyte stem cells, and how stress kicks our body’s “fight or flight” response into gear. This response activates sympathetic nerves which, in turn, release noradrenaline.


This chemical doesn’t just get our hearts racing; it sends melanocyte stem cells into overdrive, causing them to multiply rapidly and then migrate away from hair follicles, leading to the loss of melanin and the emergence of gray hair.


This discovery adds a scientific backbone to the age-old tales of stress leading to gray hair, highlighting a direct pathway through which our bodies’ response to stress can manifest visibly.


4- Gray Hair Can Be Reversed


In an intriguing turn of events, a Columbia University study has found that the graying process might not be as permanent as previously believed. This research, aiming to quantitatively link stress with hair graying, confirmed that not only does stress contribute to hair turning gray, but remarkably, this process can be reversed [13].


Through analyzing hair samples from 14 participants and correlating the findings with their stress diaries, researchers uncovered evidence of hair reverting to its original color during periods of reduced stress. One standout instance was a volunteer whose hair regained its dark color while on vacation, a clear sign of stress’s reversible impact on hair pigment.


However, it’s crucial to temper expectations. This reversal seems most probable for hair that has recently grayed due to stress, indicating those with long-standing gray hair might not experience the same results.


5- Gray Hair Reversal May Offer Clues into Age Reversal


The Columbia University study on gray hair reversal hints at a broader, more captivating possibility: that understanding how gray hair can revert to its original color might offer insights into reversing aging itself.


“Understanding the mechanisms that allow ‘old’ gray hairs to return to their ‘young’ pigmented states could yield new clues about the malleability of human aging in general and how it is influenced by stress,” says Dr. Martin Picard, the senior author of the Columbia University study showing gray hair reversal.


This breakthrough aligns with the idea that aging isn’t just a one-way street but a process with potential detours and U-turns. It paves the way for exploring how lifestyle and environmental factors could impact the aging of tissues beyond hair, offering a glimmer of hope for extending human health and vitality.


In a twist of fate, what once signified aging for Willy Wonka  —  his gray hair  —  could now reveal secrets to reclaiming youth so that Wonka wouldn’t need an heir anymore.


Sorry, Charlie.


References:


[1] WHO. (2022, October 1). Ageing and Health. World Health Organization; World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ageing-and-health

[2] Shi, Y., Luo, L.-F., Liu, X.-M., Zhou, Q., Xu, S.-Z., & Lei, T.-C. (2014). Premature Graying as a Consequence of Compromised Antioxidant Activity in Hair Bulb Melanocytes and Their Precursors. PLoS ONE, 9(4), e93589. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0093589

[3] O’Sullivan, J. D. B., Nicu, C., Picard, M., Chéret, J., Bedogni, B., Tobin, D. J., & Paus, R. (2020). The biology of human hair greying. Biological Reviews, 96(1), 107–128. https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12648

[4] Mahendiratta, S., Sarma, P., Kaur, H., Kaur, S., Kaur, H., Bansal, S., Prasad, D., Prajapat, M., Upadhay, S., Kumar, S., Kumar, H., Singh, R., Singh, A., Mishra, A., Prakash, A., & Medhi, B. (2020). Premature graying of hair: Risk factors, co‐morbid conditions, pharmacotherapy and reversal — A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Dermatologic Therapy, 33(6). https://doi.org/10.1111/dth.13990

[5] Konstantinos Anastassakis. (2022). The Effects of Aging on the Hair Follicle. Springer EBooks, 83–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-76111-0_8

[6] Schnohr, P., Nyboe, J., Lange, P., & Jensen, G. (1998). Longevity and Gray Hair, Baldness, Facial Wrinkles, and Arcus Senilis in 13,000 Men and Women: The Copenhagen City Heart Study. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 53A(5), M347–M350. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/53a.5.m347

[7] Schnohr, P., Lange, P., Nyboe, J., Appleyard, M., & Jensen, G. (1995). Gray hair, baldness, and wrinkles in relation to myocardial infarction: The Copenhagen City Heart Study. American Heart Journal, 130(5), 1003–1010. https://doi.org/10.1016/0002-8703(95)90201-5

[8] ElFaramawy, A. A. A., Hanna, I. S., Darweesh, R. M., Ismail, A. S., & Kandil, H. I. (2018). The degree of hair graying as an independent risk marker for coronary artery disease, a CT coronary angiography study. The Egyptian Heart Journal, 70(1), 15–19. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ehj.2017.07.001

[9] Paik, S., Jang, S., Joh, H., Lim, C., Cho, B., Kwon, O., & Jo, S. (2018). Association Between Premature Hair Greying and Metabolic Risk Factors: A Cross-sectional Study. Acta Dermato Venereologica, 98(8), 748–752. https://doi.org/10.2340/00015555-2974

[10] Mogahed, F. F., Mohamed, H. A.-R., & Ahmed, M. H. (2023). Premature Hair Greying and Diabetes Mellitus. Minia Journal of Medical Research, 34(3), 6–10. https://doi.org/10.21608/mjmr.2023.210436.1394

[11] Chen, D., & Tong, Y. (2019). Graying of Hair. Springer EBooks, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_656-1

[12] Zhang, B., Ma, S., Rachmin, I., He, M., Baral, P., Choi, S., Gonçalves, W. A., Shwartz, Y., Fast, E. M., Su, Y., Zon, L. I., Regev, A., Buenrostro, J. D., Cunha, T. M., Chiu, I. M., Fisher, D. E., & Hsu, Y.-C. (2020). Hyperactivation of sympathetic nerves drives depletion of melanocyte stem cells. Nature, 577(7792), 676–681. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-1935-3

[13] Rosenberg, A. M., Rausser, S., Ren, J., Mosharov, E. V., Sturm, G., Ogden, R. T., Patel, P., Kumar Soni, R., Lacefield, C., Tobin, D. J., Paus, R., & Picard, M. (2021). Quantitative mapping of human hair greying and reversal in relation to life stress. ELife, 10. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.67437

Comments


bottom of page