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Hair loss: causes and prevention

Our hair's condition can act as an indicator of our general health and wellbeing, particularly as we get older.

Three senior men laughing
The cure for baldness has always been a holy grail

Even though we don't all lose our hair as we age, it's perfectly normal for our locks to be less impressive, profuse and lustrous than they were in our youth. Hair develops and changes throughout our lives and is thickest when we're around 20.

As we get older, it turns grey, gets thinner and may fall out. It's estimated that 50 per cent of people in Europe have 50 per cent grey hair by the age of 50, and two-thirds of all men are affected by male pattern baldness.

Hairy hormones

As so often, hormones play an important role. In women, as the oestrogen develops, the hair quality and density increases. Many things affect the growth from our twenties onwards, diet, health, medications, but the fall in oestrogen affects those women who are genetically pre-disposed to it.

The hair becomes gradually finer (smaller in diameter) as the years pass. Nobody over 50, for example, has the same volume of hair they had in their 20s, 30s or 40s. Men, however, are more likely to lose their hair. Male pattern baldness or androgenetic alopecia is likely to affect 70 per cent of men by the time they are 70 years old.

This condition is inherited and hair can begin to thin as early as mid to late teens. Again, hormones are to blame, with male pattern baldness being caused by an over-sensitivity of the hair follicle to normal levels of testosterone.

Ironically, the male hormones that stop hair growing where we do want it can make it grow where we don't want it - in men, eyebrow, ear and nasal hair can get longer and coarser and women may experience a growth in body hair.

Health warning

Changes in the hair can also be a sign of health problems and should be investigated. Some drugs cause hair loss, while thyroid disorders and conditions such as psoriasis and ringworm can have a similar effect. However, bad health isn't always to blame for bad hair.

This can be due to natural weathering, particularly in long, therefore 'old' hair, and/or poor hair care routines. To keep hair at its best requires some effort.

  • Shampoo frequently - daily if possible
  • Massage the scalp daily with gentle kneading
  • Consider colouring which helps to swell hair
  • Have a perm if you wish
  • Choose 'volume boosting' shampoos, conditioners and styling aids

Diet matters

The right diet is essential for a glossy head of hair. To stay healthy-looking, hair needs protein and iron, which can be found in red meats and dark green vegetables, nuts and eggs.

Fish and poultry also provide protein. Have plenty of fresh fruit, salads and vegetables of different colours, lots of water and a glass or two of red wine: any alcohol in moderation is fine.

Read about getting a fuller head of hair 

Growing concern

The realisation that hair can reveal so much about health has led to a proliferation of companies offering to analyse hair for minerals and toxins.

These should be regarded with caution. Hair takes approximately two to three months to appear at the surface of the skin, the minerals and metals held within it were laid down some time ago. Therefore, an analysis can only give you an indication of a person's health several months ago.

Pills and potions

The cure for hair loss has always been a holy grail, with all kinds of treatments and quack remedies being promoted for their re-growth potential. One sixteenth-century recipe, for example, involved applying a mixture of boiled slugs, olive oil, honey, saffron, soap and cumin to the head.

Treatments that have been shown to have some effect are minoxidil (Regaine) and finasteride (Propecia) and both have been shown to be effective in stopping hair loss in some men, and in some cases in re-growing hair in those beginning to lose hair.

However, those who suffer from extensive male pattern loss are unlikely to be helped. You can buy Regaine from any chemist and Propecia is available from GPs on private prescription.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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