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Graying Hair with Age and White Hair in the Elderly

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Graying Hair with Age and White Hair in the ElderlyGray hair is accepted as a normal part of aging. It tends to start as early as the forties, although in some people it may be even earlier within the thirties or as late as the fifties, and progresses from a grayish to silver color until it eventually turns white. The reason why graying occurs with age is not entirely clear although the mechanism by which it happens is understood. The more aesthetic conscious seniors spend considerable time and money trying to undo this age-related change in hair color. However, graying with age is irreversible and any measures to counteract it are simply temporary.

Causes of Graying with Age

The age at which a person starts graying appears to be determined by genetic factors. Although poor health and psychological stress could possibly contribute to this change in hair color, there is no conclusive evidence that permanent and age-related graying is associated with these factors. In order to understand why graying of the hair occurs, it is important to have a basic knowledge of the hair structure.

Broadly human hair has two parts :

  1. Hair shaft which we see as the visible strands of hair.
  2. Hair root which lies under the skin surface.

The hair shaft is technically made up of dead cells which produce a special protein known as keratin. This is the same protein that makes up the outer barrier of the skin. Most of the activity is within the living portion of the hair termed the hair root, which is responsible for the hair color, length and strength.

There are two types of cells that are important within the root.

  • Epidermal cells which are specialized due to its ability to produce the protein keratin. These cells are also referred to as keratinocytes as it matures.
  • Melanocytes which are cells that produce a special pigment known as melanin which is responsible for the color of our hair, skin and eyes.

The melanin can be of two types of colors – a black to brown color or a red to yellow color. The color that is manufactured is determined by genetic factors. A combination of these colors is what gives rise to the differences in human hair color, as well as skin and eye color.

Hair Stem Cells

The hair root is the active living part of hair and is abundant in cells that are constantly being replenished. In order to this, the hair root has a store of stem cells. These stem cells are immature and inactive cells which can then be matured and made active when needed. There are epidermal stems cells and melanocyte stem cells which eventually become active to give rise to the hair structure and color respectively.

For some reason, it appears that the supply of melanocyte stem cells are exhausted first. This is most likely due to two gene. Once these stem cells die, the hair root cannot continue to color the hair as it was earlier in life. Initially this is seen as the hair turning lighter in color, then gray to silver and eventually white.

This is a normal and harmless process that occurs with age. Medically it is known as achromotrichia.

Is graying reversible?

Graying of the hair with age is  irreversible. It is genetically determined and occurs as a result of the death of melanocyte stems cells which cannot be undone. It has been seen that certain types of toxic cancer drugs can delaying or inhibit graying but the mechanism for how this happens is not clearly understood. Either way the side effects from these drugs does not make it a viable solution to counteract graying with age.

Currently the only solution to mask gray hairs is by using hair dyes at regular intervals to cover up the colorless hair shafts. Mega doses of vitamins, hair oils and other concoctions to counteract graying hair in seniors has not been scientifically proven to be effective for age-related change in hair color. It may be of some use to those with premature graying but in these instances it is often associated with nutritional factors.

Using some of these concoctions can be risky as it may irritate or damage the skin of the scalp thereby destroying hair follicles or even leading to skin diseases. Using supplements and other orally administered substances, including herbal variations, may have a host of side effects. This is more likely in the elderly who have chronic ailments and are taking chronic medication as it can lead to dangerous drug interactions.

Aging and the changes in the body that occur with with age should be embraced rather than frowned upon. While some of age-related changes can cause great discomfort and limit independence in the senior years, graying with age is not debilitating in any way and is nothing more than a minor physical inconvenience to most seniors. Indeed gray hair is still seen as a mark of wisdom and seniority that makes one look distinguished and garners respect the world over.


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