A Healthy Age
In spring 2016, researchers identified the primary gene responsible for graying hair, noted a study in Nature Communications. This research study may someday lead to a pill that prevents what now seems inevitable – the graying of our hair.
Newsweek reported, “Researchers analyzed the DNA of 6,000 people from Latin America to locate the genes that determine hair color, texture, density and other attributes such as whether a person’s hair is straight or has corkscrew curls.” The magazine noted that the study included people of mixed European, Native American and African origin, which represented a mixed gene pool.
What’s your story? Do you blame the broad swath of human history, or pin it down onwhite-haired Grandma Nellie?
My mother’s only sister will be 88 this fall. Except for a few strands of gray near her face, my aunt’s hair remains the lovely auburn shade she had as a girl. My mother, who is her half-sister, had jet black hair that started turning gray then white in her 30s.
When the wheel of fortune landed on me, I started graying at age 28. I covered my hair with a series of subtle and sometimes outrageous colors, tints, and highlights. When I finally stopped that expensive madness, my hair was nearly all gray and is now turning white.
My mother and her sister shared the same father, but different mothers. My aunt’s mother died in childbirth, so we’ll never know if her auburn hair would have lightened. My aunt’s grandmother lived well into her 90s with that striking auburn hair.
My mother’s mother, my grandmother, had dark hair that turned early, as did my mom, as did mine.
“Hair graying is a natural age-associated feature,” reported the National Institute of Health, “The hair graying trait correlates closely with chronological aging, but it occurs to varying degrees in all individuals. Hair is said to gray prematurely if it occurs before the age of 20 in Caucasians and before 30 in African-Americans.”
Twenty or 30? Are you kidding me? Many of my friends in their 60s and 70s are still hitting the bottle (the hair dye bottle) regularly, and not acknowledging this process is happening.
I accepted the inevitable in my mid-50s. You honestly can’t fool Mother Nature, but I tried. In the last years before my decision to let it go, my stylist highlighted my hair, either by pulling strands through a cap or using strips of aluminum foil. One of Buck Rogers’ space creatures might have felt at home next to me in the salon when I underwent this uncomfortable transformation.
Only one downfall and uncomfortable situation. Security demands new passport photos be shot against a white background. I won’t be using my new passport photo for holiday cards anytime soon, as I faded into the background. It wasn’t my finest hour. That fading out wasn’t a problem ten years ago with my last passport photo when my hair was an unknown, chemical color.
What causes this change? Why do some people gray and others keep their natural color? We can thank or blame it on the pigment called melanin, the formation of which begins before birth.
“How Stuff Works” explained, “Except for a few growing cells at the base of the root, the hair is dead tissue and is composed of keratin and related proteins. The hair follicle is a tube-like pocket of the epidermis that encloses a small section of the dermis at its base. Human hair is formed by rapid divisions of cells at the base of the follicle. As the cells are pushed upward from the follicle's base, they harden and undergo pigmentation.”
At that point, our genetics come into play. Genes produce and regulate the melanin that gives hair its color. Melanin is also responsible for eye color and skin color. Gray hair occurs when the body slows down its production of melanin, which is also determined by genetics.
Unless we turn to chemicals, there’s not much we can do about our genetic make-up.
Several other factors may contribute to change in hair color. Internal factors affecting hair color over time may include genetic defects, hormones, body distribution, and age. External factors may include climate, pollutants, toxins, and chemical exposure.
Our genes affect other factors about our hair, including the texture, straightness or curliness, and yes, even the loss of hair.
Graying may not be all bad. Advertising has discovered gray and white-haired people, of all ages. Younger people sometimes enhance darker hair with a streak of gray, and those who come by it through family ties are showing up in more ads. Regardless of whether mine came from my maternal grandmother or a wider gene pool, I tell people “I’ve earned it!”
Find my books and columns at www.amyabbottwrites.com.