The first onset of gray hair and the speed at which people go gray varies considerably from person to person. Most people actually start going gray in their late 20s but they don't notice it immediately. Premature graying is defined as gray hair onset before late teens for Caucasians and before age 30 in Africans and Asians, or alternatively 50% or more gray scalp hair before age 50.
The time and speed of gray hair onset is due in part to genetics, and early onset gray hair development can run in families.
Very occasionally, a few gray hairs can develop in children as young as 8 years and yet it indicates nothing other than an early onset of the gray hair that we all develop with increasing age. Typical gray hair first develops at age 34.2 +/- 9.6 years in Caucasians while for Black people the average age of onset is 43.9 +/-10.3 years [Keogh 1965]. As a rough guide, 50% of the population in the US and Europe have 50% gray hair by age 50.
Gray hair is caused by the gradual reduction of melanin production over time within the affected hair follicle. The melanocytes in the hair follicles produce less and less melanin, and the result is a loss of hair fiber color strength. What we call gray hair is not gray at all if you look at the individual hair fibers. Some hair fibers will contain some color while others are virtually white. What we describe as gray comes about from our perception of the overall scalp hair color. Blondes are most likely to develop a completely white head of hair in old age because their hair fiber has a very low density of pigment in it to start with.
The most common areas on the scalp in which to first see gray hair development are above the ears and/or at the temples. This first gray hair may spread around the sides and to the crown with time. Gray hair development in the beard and mustache may also start quite early, while gray hair on the chest and pubic region generally only occurs some years after onset of gray hair on the scalp.
Hair graying results when melanocytes stop producing melanin, the same pigment that darkens our skin to protect us from UV radiation. Sex steroids such as estrogens and progesterone stimulate the function of melanocytes. Also, premature hair graying is less frequent in ethnic groups, notably blacks, who also tend to have higher testosterone levels in both sexes. [J Clin Endo Metab 1997; 82: pp.3580-83]
April, 2017: A study involving 545 subjects and presented at the annual meeting of the European Association of Preventive Cardiology found that increased hair graying indicates a statistically significant increased risk of damaged arteries, arterial calcium deposits, and narrowing and hardening of the coronary arteries (coronary artery disease).
Premature graying of hair is associated with other features of accelerated aging such as faster bone loss. A study of 293 postmenopausal women has confirmed that early hair graying and greater bone loss tend to occur together. The lower bone density was especially apparent in the hip region.
The authors found that when they adjusted bone mineral density for age and weight, there was a clear connection between the age of onset of hair graying and bone density. "Age- and weight-adjusted bone mineral density (BMD) was significantly lower in those with the majority of their hair graying during their thirties compared with those in whom it occurred in their forties." Premature hair graying before the age of 40 was associated with a lower BMD at most skeletal sites. Also, women who started graying extremely early in life, already in their twenties, had lower bone density than those who started graying in their thirties. [J Clin Endo Metab 1997; 82: pp.3580-3]
In an earlier report, doctors in Maine showed that people with gray hair by age 40 are 4.4 times more likely to suffer from osteoporosis. [J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1994; 79: pp.854-7]
There have been testimonies regarding partial restoration of hair color during the long-term use of hydrogen peroxide baths. Head hair color may move slightly away from white toward its earlier color. Men's chest hairs may recover their natural color to a greater degree than head hair.
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