Sept. 23, 2011 -- Hair loss may not just be a matter of age or unlucky genes.
Preliminary findings from new studies of male and female identical twins suggest that a broad range of lifestyle factors, including stress, smoking, heavy drinking, and sun exposure, may also foil the follicles.
That appeared to be especially true for women. One study found that wives who lost a spouse to death or divorce were at highest risk of hair loss at the midline, which leads to a widening part.
In men, genes seemed to be the biggest predictor of balding, though smoking, drinking, stress, and sun exposure also factored in.
Although that may sound discouraging, experts say the research comes with a silver lining: Adopting healthier habits and controlling stress can sometimes help hair come back.
“Part of it is to manage what you can,” says Doris Day, MD, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City who was not involved in the research. “The sooner you address it, the better your chances of having recovery.”
For the studies, Bahman Guyuron, MD, a plastic surgeon at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, recruited 90 male and 98 female identical twins. “Twins are genetically destined to have the same number of hairs,” Guyuron says. “And if one has fewer it means that it is related to outside factors.”
Each pair was asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire about their lives and habits, and doctors snapped pictures of their scalps to measure any areas of thinning. A panel of experts judged which twins had the most hair.
“What is amazing is how many of these twins have exactly the same behaviors, the same things matching except one or two factors that possibly may contribute to these differences,” Guyuron says.
In women, factors related to stress were often predictive of hair loss. The most important of those was marital status. Twins in stable marriages tended to have fuller heads of hair than a sibling who had been divorced or widowed.
Other characteristics that were related to women’s hair loss, probably because of associated stress, Guyuron says, were having a higher income, multiple children, or higher blood pressure.
Factors associated with keeping more hair included wearing hats and other sun protection, drinking coffee, and having a stable marriage.