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Premature ‘grey’ hair – what it is and why it happens

‘Premature greying’ is defined as onset before age 20 in Caucasians or before age 30 in people of dark skin colour. In younger people what they see as ‘grey’ hair is actually a mixture of white & pigmented (colored) hair – or ‘vellus’ hair growth due to follicle miniaturisation seen in androgenic scalp hair activity.

It’s uncommon to find true grey hair in younger people because grey hair is actually a manifestation of the ageing process. Chronological ageing results in a progressive reduction of pigmenting factors within the hair bulb (as melanocyte function & tyrosinase production).

When and how we go grey is essentially an individual and genetically programmed change for each of us. Average age for ‘white’ hair to appear in Caucasians is around age 34, whilst those of African heritage it’s around 43; Asians it’s 34-40 years.

True greying of hair in the elderly is termed Canities.

There is a strong correlation between the premature greying of hair and autoimmune conditions, particularly:
• Vitamin B12 deficiency (Pernicious anaemia) – which may exhibit as ‘sandy-grey’ hair coloring. Pernicious anaemia is purportedly more common in Scandinavian people.
• Copper deficiency (resulting in ‘white’ unpigmented hair)
• (Autoimmune) thyroid dysfunction (termed: thyroiditis)
• Premature aging syndromes (e.g.: ‘Methuselah Syndrome; Progeria/Pangeria)
• As part of other autoimmune diseases (autoimmune conditions often show in multiple bundles).

It’s believed that Albert Einstein experienced severe (or absolute) Copper deficiency as his hair went white and he died from a cerebral hemorrhage – two risk factors associated with copper deficiency (Watts:1995).

In a 2021 Harvard University study, Professor Ya-Chieh Hsu headed a research team into the effects of stress on scalp follicle hair growth (1). Hsu’s group also discovered how stress affects another type of stem cell in the hair follicle: the melanocyte stem cells that regenerate hair pigment.

The researchers found that stress activates the sympathetic nervous system and depletes melanocyte stem cells – leading to premature hair greying.

The two findings together demonstrate that although stress has detrimental impacts on both hair follicle stem cells and melanocyte stem cells, the mechanisms are different.

Stress depletes melanocyte stem cells directly via nerve-derived signals, while stress prevents hair follicle stem cells from generating new hairs indirectly via an adrenal-gland-derived stress hormone impact (2).

Overnight or rapid hair de-pigmentation is most often due to a form of alopecia areata – an autoimmune condition – where selective breakage and shedding of pigmented hairs occurs, whilst only unpigmented or white hairs are retained. This form of incomplete hair loss is termed ‘partialis’.

Poliosis or ‘pie-baldism’ is a condition related to alopecia areata where the hair is retained, but one area patch of hair becomes totally devoid of pigment or colour. Poliosis usually occurs in the front forelock of the scalp hair but may also be seen in the crown (or beard/chest hair in men).

Severe emotional or psychological shock may induce a rapid onset de-pigmentation of the hair. Historical examples of dramatic changes in hair colour were Sir Thomas Moore and Marie Antoinette whose hair was reported to have turned grey overnight preceding their execution.

From an interested observer’s perspective, it’s also curious how rapidly the leaders of countries appear to age – both in their hair and physical appearance. Being Prime Minister or President of one’s country is perhaps a more demanding position than we voters appreciate!

1. Dr. Sekyu Choi and Professor Ya-Chieh Hsu whose work and research paper I acknowledge.
2. Cortisol and the Gas6 pathway.

Copyright Anthony Pearce – 2018 (revised April 2024)


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