For men, probably the scariest thing about getting older is hair loss.
Women also lose some of their hair as they grow older, but this is not as pronounced as in men, mainly because women have much less of the "male" hormones testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
Age, male hormones and genetics
Male pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia) is by far the greatest cause of hair loss in men. Hair loss can start as early as adolescence, and more than half of all men have lost some hair by the age of 50.
The culprit that shrinks hair follicles and causes them to die is dihydrotestosterone, a male hormone that is derived from testosterone. (It is well known that castrated men who don’t produce male hormones don’t go bald.)
Read: Low testosterone, depression linked
Chemotherapy can cause hair loss, but this is usually a temporary condition, and the hair grows back once the course of treatment is over.
There is also a genetic component to baldness and men with close relatives who have male pattern baldness are more likely to develop the condition.
To summarise, the three main causes of male baldness are age, male hormones and genetics.
Cause of great distress
Many balding men aren’t particularly upset about going bald and regard it as a natural part of growing older. Others, however, react very negatively to hair loss and experience psychological effects like depression, loss of self-esteem and a negative body image. (Women, for obvious reasons, also tend to react very negatively to hair loss.)
People resort to all kinds of ways to hide the fact that they are losing their hair. Some men shave their heads to divert attention from the balding spots while others resort to the dreaded comb-over. More drastic actions involve hair transplants or wearing a wig or toupee.
Read: Hair Loss Myths Quiz
All of the above measures are “band-aids” that don’t address the root (as it were) of the problem. The best and most effective way to solve the problem is, of course, to restore natural hair growth.
A lack of certain nutrients may contribute to hair loss, and supplements like vitamin C and E, vitamin B complex, inositol and copper may encourage hair growth. Remedies like rubbing an onion on the bald spot and massaging the scalp with coconut milk also don’t seem too unusual or outlandish.
There are currently a number of “caffeine shampoos” on the market that promise to restore hair growth and/or slow down hair loss by stimulating the individual hair roots. It is also claimed that the caffeine suppresses testosterone and the stress hormone CRH.
Read: Can caffeine shampoo cure baldness?
Saw palmetto is an ingredient in some hair loss treatment shampoos and may slow hair loss by blocking the amount of DHT in the scalp.
But the following 'boererate' are just too weird:
- In 1936 in America the Crosley Corporation introduced the Xervac, a suction machine that was supposed to use a vacuum to stimulate hair growth. Needless to say, this contraption died a natural death.
- The Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text from 3 500 years ago suggested a concoction made from the fat of a hippopotamus, tomcat, snake, ibex and crocodile to be applied to the scalp and left for four days. The ancient Egyptians also believed that a mixture of herbs and cow dung could cure hair loss.
- The famous ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who is known as the father of western medicine prescribed a mixture of opium, horseradish, pigeon droppings, beetroot and spices, which apparently wasn’t very successful. Having observed that eunuchs (castrated men) never went bald he suggested castration, but somehow that never caught on.
- When Julius Caesar’s hair became thin, his mistress Cleopatra recommended that he apply a concoction consisting of ground mice, horse teeth and bear grease. When this didn’t work, he started covering his head with a laurel wreath.
- In London, in modern times, Aberdeen Organic Bull Semen Treatments are very popular. Although not for the faint hearted, applying bovine semen to your scalp is claimed to guarantee a thick, strong head of hair.
- Many people believe that if you rub hot sauces containing chilies or peppers on your scalp it will stimulate circulation and encourage hair growth. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilies, will certainly cause a burning sensation on your skin, but there is no proof that it will cause your hair to grow back.
- Colombian farmers believe that bovine saliva can cure baldness – literally a cowlick.
- King Henry VIII from England smeared horse and dog urine over his bald pate.
- In India it is believed that standing on your head on a regular basis will restore a full head of hair.
Understanding female hair loss
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