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Can Stress Make You Go Grey? (Even If You Are Not Barack Obama)

3 minute read

Speaking at a Labor Day event Wisconsin Monday, President Obama tried to fire up Democrats to vote in the November’s midterm elections by reminding them of what he’d sacrificed on behalf of American workers—namely his youthful black hair.

“Every gray hair is worth it,” the President said.

As is evident in the timelapse video below, it’s clear that Obama is notably grayer than when he entered office and the change is extraordinary, but as any logician/annoying know-it-all-friend will remind you, correlation does not imply causation. But could Obama be right? Can job stress make you go gray?

The current evidence suggests that “stress does not cause people to have gray hair,” says Dr. Ken Anderson, founder of the Anderson Hair Sciences Center in Atlanta. In other words, parents who complain that their teenagers are turning their hair gray probably can’t blame their new hair color on the 16-year-old. “That’s called aging. That’s father time doing that to them,” Anderson said.

Still, the science on the matter isn’t settled. A 2013 study on mice, published in Nature Medicine, suggests that stress or injury to the skin around the hair follicle can cause a depletion of melanocyte stem cells—which are responsible for hair’s color—resulting in gray strands.

What we do know is that a change in hair color is most often the natural result of a reduction in melanin—the pigment that adds color to your hair—which occurs naturally over time. The odds of your hair turning gray increase by between 10% and 20% every decade past age 30. Other factors that can cause your hair to change pigment, or lose pigment, include pollutants, chemical exposure, some medications and even climate.

If the president is losing his hair, it could be due to job-related stress, but even then it would have to be an extraordinary situation. “Stress can cause hair loss, but not the kind of stress that we have every day,” he said. “It’s the kind of stress like your wife of 50 years dies…that kind of stress can really raise the stress hormones in the body and cause hair loss.”

Obama ain’t the only one.

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