Gray hair creeps up on you — sometimes literally. I was in my 30s, sporting a full beard, when I first noticed a few gray hairs appearing. Then there were more than just a few. It wasn’t long before the lumberjack image was beginning to give way to something closer to Old Father Time.
It wasn’t just the image that bothered me. It was the way I felt. Sure, gray hair is supposed to make men look distinguished. To give them gravitas. Look at Bill Clinton. Look at the baby-faced newsman Anderson Cooper, whose prematurely gray hair must have helped him land a job as a CNN anchor.
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But gray hair can also make you look older than you feel — or are. “Gray hairs are like angels sent by the god of death,” according to the teachings of Buddha. Or, as Cooper quipped, “Translation: Gray is nature’s way of whispering, ‘You’re dying.’”
Off went the beard.
“Wow, you look a lot younger,” friends said — until gray hairs started sprouting up through the dark brown of my sideburns and then wending their way up into my temples. Salt-and-pepper, I told myself. A little gray can be sexy. Look at George Clooney. If he’s okay with turning gray, why should I fret? Why? Well, look at him. Clooney would look terrific sporting a Mohawk and wearing sackcloth. The increasingly gray-haired reflection staring back at me in the mirror, on the other hand…
It was time to do some investigating.
Causes of gray hair still a gray area
Gray hair may be one of the most common signs of aging, I discovered, but researchers still aren’t completely sure why it happens. One of the world’s leading experts on gray hair is Desmond Tobin, PhD, a researcher at the University of Bradford in England. When I contacted him, he graciously sent along a sheaf of scientific papers with titles like “Graying: gerontobiology of the hair follicle pigmenting unit” and “Hair cycle and hair pigmentation: dynamic interactions and changes associated with aging.”
I dug in, encouraged to discover that science is taking gray hair so seriously.