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Why We Turn Gray : Change Occurs in Quarter of Population by Age 25, but Scientists Still Haven't Gotten to Root of It

October 06, 1987|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

You squint into the mirror in the morning, your eyes trying to adjust to the harsh bathroom light. Hesitantly, you take a brush to your hair. And, there it is .

Around one or both temples, perhaps radiating up the side of your head. If you're male, you might see it at the top of your sideburns.

Gray hair.

Not just a few, but enough to be inescapably--undeniably--noticeable.

Bruno Meglio, 40, a partner in the fashionable Beverly Hills hair salon Bruno & Soonie, remembers the morning it happened to him.

"I can't tell you the actual day, but it was in April of 1978," he said. "I just looked in the mirror one morning and there it was, around the temples. This occurred when there was a change in my life and I went into business for myself and noticed a much faster graying."

No one has gotten to the root of the problem yet, for the process of graying is an aspect of body behavior that has never been thoroughly studied by medical researchers. Nevertheless, graying is known to be a function of a complex system of body chemistry which, among other things, appears to be influenced by many of the factors identified by traditional folk culture. For instance:

--Stress and worry evidently can influence the rate at which people gray.

--There is something to the notion that people gray "overnight," but it isn't because the hairs turn color rapidly. It is just that dark hairs fall out, leaving only white ones behind--but it usually occurs over a period of a few weeks, almost never literally overnight.

--Graying patterns in all likelihood are inherited.

--Men and women gray in slightly different patterns. Women gray slightly faster than men.

--Light-haired people don't gray more slowly than dark-haired people; it just appears that way because apparent grayness is often created by the contrast between white hairs and darker ones. In light-haired people, the contrast is less pronounced.

--Premature graying is a quantifiable phenomenon, affecting a quarter of all people by the time they are 25. Production of the first gray hairs on the head commonly begins as early as age 15.

Meglio, who fits the graying stereotype in a number of ways, agrees with other trendy stylists that graying is becoming a preoccupation of the Baby Boom generation.

"I think that, as far as women are concerned, hysteria is the first reaction," Meglio said. "There is still a double standard in our society. If a man gets gray, he's sexy, charming, sophisticated and desirable. If a woman gets gray, she's none of those things."

Said Westside salon operator Allen Edwards, "I think people like gray hair less today than in the past. People today are real aware of their health and feeling good. I personally feel gray hair makes you feel old."

But as much as graying may be a preoccupation in today's young adults and people in early and mid-middle age, it has never been the focus of a concerted scientific inquiry. The world medical literature includes not one single journal article on the graying process in the last decade.

So a lot of what the experts say about it, they concede, is based on assumption and guesswork.

"It is a subject of enormous curiosity," said Dr. James Nordlund, chairman of the department of dermatology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and one of the few experts on graying identified by the American Dermatological Assn. and the government's National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

"But if you went to the National Institutes of Health (the federal government's research arm) and said, 'Look, I'd love to have a grant to study graying of the hair,' you'd probably get the Golden Fleece Award from that senator from Wisconsin (Democrat William Proxmire)," Nordlund said.

From interviews with Nordlund and three other experts, a picture of the phenomenon of graying begins to emerge.

The process starts deep in the outer layer of the skin, the epidermis, almost to the inner layer of the skin, the dermis. Each of the 100,000 hairs on the head is controlled by a hair bulb, below the follicle at the deepest part of the root system. It is through the hair bulb that a variety of complex substances are channeled, creating each hair, mainly composed of a biochemical substance called keratin.

In the hair roots and in the epidermis, millions of protein-producing pigment cells, called melanocytes, produce chemicals that determine the coloring of hair and skin. Albinos usually have a normal number of melanocytes, but they lack the chemical means to trigger pigment production. In some people, only a small area of skin lacks functionless melanocytes, producing white spots or streaks in an otherwise dark head of hair.

For an albino, said Nordlund, "it's like a car without a carburetor. There's plenty of fuel (in the form of the cells) but it is not able to convert it into color."

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