Diet can make a difference in age-related thinning hair


Dear Doctor: My hair has been thin since I was young, and now that I’m growing older, it’s getting worse. Why is that happening? Is there anything I can add to my diet to make my hair thicker and healthier, or is thinner hair inevitable with aging?

Dear Reader: Among the many changes we can expect to see in our bodies as we grow older are gradual differences in the appearance of our hair. In addition to going gray and, for some people, growing bald, this includes changes to hair’s thickness and texture. Aging hair typically grows more slowly and becomes more sparsely distributed. The strands themselves become more brittle, dull and thinner than they had been in the past. They become more fragile, as well, which can lead to increased splitting and breakage. Since the state of our hair contributes to our overall appearance, as well as to our sense of self, it’s understandable that these changes might be unwelcome.

A single strand of hair is composed of three separate layers of a hard protein called keratin. In younger adults, it has a life span of two to seven years -- or more -- and grows about one-half inch per month. Due, in part, to hormonal changes as we age, hair falls out more quickly in older adults and is replaced with finer hair that grows more slowly. Some hair follicles go completely dormant. Genetic, environmental and behavioral factors can also play a role in these changes and vary greatly from person to person. The good news is that, although you can’t completely turn back the clock to youthful hair, there are steps you can take to navigate these changes.

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD

You asked about diet, and you’re correct that it can make a difference. The cells in hair follicles have a high rate of turnover, so maintaining a balanced diet is important. Some studies have suggested that supplementation of biotin, one of the B family of vitamins, can contribute to healthier hair. However, the National Institutes of Health reports there is insufficient data to back up these claims. Added biotin in the diet can interfere with important medical test results, including those used to diagnose heart problems, and can interact with some medications. Better to focus on getting adequate protein in your diet and eating from a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables for vitamins and minerals.

Because hair becomes more fragile as we age, you’ll want to examine your styling routine, including the use of hair dryers and curling irons. Although it’s tempting to use hair sprays to build up volume, the alcohols they contain can contribute to drying. Try to find a good hydrating shampoo and conditioner to help your hair stay strong and flexible.

Certain medications, including some that control blood pressure and manage blood cholesterol, can contribute to thinning. Your doctor can let you know if this is the case and help find a solution. Some women opt for medications that promote hair growth, such as Rogaine or Propecia. Again, whether or not to go this route is a discussion you should have with your health care provider.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)