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.
You probably think of yourself as an average guy. And you probably think you cope pretty well with everyday stress. Sure, the boss might be causing you stress at work and making you uneasy about how secure your job is. Yeah, and maybe your wife has been too busy or too tired lately to notice just how much stress you have to deal with. And look at how fast your daughter is growing up. It's as if you're watching her in time-lapse photography while your college-aged son is still stuck in high school...
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.