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Female-Pattern Baldness? Really

Hair-loss problem is made more difficult by society's emphasis on women's looks.

April 09, 1999|LINELL SMITH | BALTIMORE SUN

Several years ago, Sara Taggart started noticing she was losing a lot of hair whenever she took a shower. As she combed it, more hairs would end up in the sink. Then one day she noticed a patch of bare skin on the back of her head--a bald spot.

Taggart, who manages a private estate in Baltimore County, was distraught. Her mother had lost a lot of her hair in her 60s and 70s, gradually becoming bald. But Taggart was only 53.

"I was afraid this was going to happen to me, too," she says. "My family started noticing I was losing my hair. Then my friends said, 'Oh my goodness, you're losing a lot of hair.' It was making me so uncomfortable and depressed, I started shopping for a wig. Then I said 'No! I've got to go for help.' "

After thoroughly examining her to rule out any medical reason for hair loss, dermatologist Robert Weiss prescribed spironolactone. A diuretic commonly used for high blood pressure, spironolactone also blocks androgens, male hormones that can accelerate hair loss. Taggart's hair has grown back healthy and thick.

Although men receive most of the attention when it comes to hair loss, hair thinning is common in women and can be more devastating, dermatologists say.

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For reasons ranging from chemotherapy to the hormones of pregnancy, millions of American women experience temporary hair loss. But some have genetic hair loss because of the same hormonal process that causes men to bald. The American Academy of Dermatology says there are no statistics available on exactly how many.

Genetically based hair thinning, known as androgenetic alopecia, can be tougher psychologically on women than on men, says dermatologist Margaret Weiss, an assistant professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, who has a private practice with her husband, Robert.

"Hair loss doesn't have to be as severe in a woman as it is in a man for her to feel [unattractive]," says Weiss. "A guy can have just enough hair to frame his face and look fine--but for a woman, the same amount of hair would not look fine.

"Psychologically, hair loss is very difficult for women because society is so much less accepting of their physical imperfections. There are no bald role models for women as there are for men. And even though it is very tough on men to have their hair thin, they've seen their fathers going through it."

Composed from a form of protein also found in fingernails and toenails, hair depends upon a diet that contains adequate protein. Each hair shaft is rooted in a minute tube of skin called a follicle, which operates on a fairly predictable schedule of growing and resting. Normally, a growing phase will last several years followed by a resting phase of several months. Then new hair begins to grow and the old hair falls out.

Androgenetic alopecia occurs when a person has too much of an enzyme that converts the testosterone in their follicles into another male hormone, dehydrotestosterone, or DHT. DHT causes follicles on the scalp to shrink and grow hairs that are finer, shorter and less pigmented. Eventually the follicles stop hair production.

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This condition can be inherited from either side of the family. Like men, women with androgenetic alopecia can begin losing their hair in their teens, 20s or 30s. Though they never become bald the way men do--they don't have as much testosterone to create DHT--some women will see a male-pattern hair loss of an enlarging bare patch at the top of the head. Many more will experience diffuse hair loss all over the head.

Dermatologist Lynn Drake, president of the American Academy of Dermatology and chair of the department of dermatology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, believes many women who are told they have genetic-pattern baldness are mistakenly diagnosed.

"There are over 290 drugs--such as beta blockers or lithium--that have been associated with hair loss in women," she says. "If you stop or change the drug, the hair loss stops too."

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Many other underlying causes, such as thyroid disease and a type of anemia that is not revealed by the usual blood test, can cause hair loss. Drake also has observed that some vegetarians who don't get enough protein and certain long-distance runners--those who also have problems ovulating due to low body fat--lose scalp hair.

She says genetic-pattern hair loss should be the diagnosis of last resort.

"Sometimes something serious can get overlooked. Women with systemic lupus, for instance, will show an androgenetic hair-loss pattern. There are all these other causes of hair loss: nutrition, endocrine, infections, systemic."

Treatments for genetic pattern hair loss range from applying medication topically to surgical transplantation. Many dermatologists prescribe daily applications of Rogaine, a medication that seems to halt follicle shrinkage and encourage resting follicles to start producing again. The hair will come in over four to eight months and resemble peach fuzz at the beginning. Treatment must continue or the person may lose the regained hair.

Not all women get a regrowth. Studies suggest that Rogaine is more effective for men, a finding that again suggests to Drake that many women are misdiagnosed with genetic-pattern hair loss.

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