In men, baldness is due mostly to an unlucky roll of the genetic dice. But in women, hair loss appears to be linked much more strongly to lifestyle factors like stress — from divorce or the death of a spouse, for example — according to preliminary findings from two studies.
For the studies, Dr. Bahman Guyuron, a plastic surgeon at Case Western Reserve University, and his colleagues looked at 66 male and 84 female identical twin pairs. Since twins are genetically identical — and programmed to have identical hairlines — the researchers knew that any differences could be attributed to environmental factors.
“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 told WebMD.
Indeed, the researchers found that in women, the strongest predictor of hair loss was marital status. Women who had lost a spouse were more likely to have barer pates than their sisters with stable marriages. The data also suggested that smoking, a history of skin conditions and diabetes were also linked with greater hair loss. Other contributing factors: excessive sleeping patterns and other lifestyle factors that are often associated with high stress, like having a lot of kids, having a lot of money and high blood pressure.
Coffee-drinking women, those who protected their heads from sun exposure (with a hat, for instance) and the happily married were less likely to have thinning hair.
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For men, researchers found that baldness was mostly a genetic thing. Still, not all brothers shared the same manes, and there were some key factors that appeared to predict more hair loss. Among them: smoking, heavy drinking, high blood pressure, a history of cancer and a history of dandruff. Sedentary men were also at greater risk of hair loss, and somewhat counterintuitively, so were those who exercised a lot outdoors (researchers think it’s the sun exposure that’s to blame).
For the study, Guyuron’s team used questionnaires to ask about the siblings’ lifestyles and habits. The researchers also took pictures of the participants’ scalps, which were assessed by experts. The results of the studies must be considered preliminary, since they haven’t yet been peer-reviewed. They will be presented at the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ annual meeting in Denver this week.
The good news is that some of the lifestyle factors that may contribute to hair loss can be controlled. “[I]n the end, I am a big proponent of the idea that it’s how you handle the stress that can make a difference,” Dr. Doris Day, an attending physician in dermatology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay. “The mind-and-body connection is incredibly powerful. It helps to try and keep perspective, put the big things that happen in life, the major milestones, in their place and keep an open mind.”
Or you can always try Rogaine.
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Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.