What Early Gray Hair Can Tell You About Your Health

Could early gray hair actually be a bad sign for your health?

Silvery strands are one of the more conspicuous signs of aging. That said, getting gray hair doesn't necessarily mean that you're closer to the end of your life span than anyone else your age. Here's what we know about how and why graying hair happens.

Why We Gray

Gray hair comes down to melanin, or rather the lack of melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives hair its color. Gray hair has reduced melanin, while white hair completely lacks it. This occurs because of a gradual decline in the number of stem cells that mature to become melanin-producing cells. Scientists believe the stem cells may wear out, become damaged, or lose the support systems meant to keep them working.

Blame Your Genes

Your amount and rate of graying age are related to your ethnicity (Caucasians tend to go gray earlier than Asians and African-Americans), as well as your family history. Good information is when your parents and grandparents noticed their first grays.

Reasons for Early Graying

It's most common for graying to begin in your 30s, though some people spot a few grays in their 20s. If you think you're going gray unusually early, there are a number of possible reasons why.

Smoking, for one, has been linked to the early onset of gray hair. Environmental factors—like ultraviolet rays and air pollutants—may also be partially to blame.

Stress is another possible reason for gray hairs. Researchers examining gray hair have suggested that "free radicals"—damaging chemicals caused by stress, smoking, inflammation, or radiation exposure—might be responsible for destroying pigment-producing melanocyte stem cells.

A June 2021 study in Cell Biology from researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons found evidence linking psychological stress to graying hair in people. Perhaps most interesting, the researchers discovered that hair color can be restored when stress is eliminated.

In rare cases, premature graying can be a sign of a medical issue, such as vitiligo (a condition that causes the skin to lose its pigmentation), pernicious anemia (in which the body has difficulty absorbing vitamin B12), or problems involving your pituitary or thyroid glands.

Check with your healthcare provider if you have concerns about premature graying.

Health's medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is an associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and co-founder of Tula Skincare.

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