Changes in Hair, Scalp Due to Aging, Menopause

Patient Expert

Menopause and aging bring many changes to our bodies. Some of these changes can be expected, but some can surprise women who are just going along in their daily lives. Need some examples? Well here are two. The first is gray hair. That one is often expected (although these days, you can't always tell that a middle-age woman has gray hair because she colors her hair). The second, which can be surprising, is hair loss and dry scalp. So let's learn more about these two "mane" changes.

Gray Hair

The New York Times' Tara Parker Pope wrote in a 2009 Well column that heredity seems to be responsible for when you'll have gray hair. Researchers find that whites often go gray in their mid-30s, followed by Asians and Africans. Approximately 50 percent of 50-year-olds are at least 50 percent gray.

So why does hair go gray? Science Daily reported in 2009 that a study out of Europe that examined cell cultures in human hair follicles. The researchers found that a reduction of catalase, an enzyme that normally breaks up hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen, results in a build-up of hydrogen peroxide. Low levels of two other enzymes (MSR A and B) cause the hair follicle to be unable to repair the damage caused by the hydrogen peroxide. The build-up of hydrogen peroxide and the low levels of MSR A and B also disrupt another enzyme that produces melanin, the pigment responsible for hair color. Thus, people get gray hair.

But does gray hair hold any meaning of how long you'll live? Parker Pope pointed to research out of Denmark involving 20,000 women and men that analyzed heart-disease mortality in conjunction with signs of aging, such as gray hair, baldness and wrinkles. They found no association between the signs of aging and death.

Hair & Scalp Changes

In their book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Menopause, Barbara Seaman and Laura Eldridge point out that the loss of collagen can dry out the scalp. In addition, many women experience thinning hair as they grow older. notes that many women may not initially see the hair loss since hair tends to become thinner and shorter over time. Furthermore, changing hormone levels during menopause may cause hair to become dry and brittle.   "The main difference between male and female hair loss is that in women, hair follicles are rarely damaged, which means when the cause of the hair loss is addressed, hair can often regrow," Seaman and Eldridge write.

Seaman and Eldridge describe three types of hair loss:

  • Androgenetic alopecia, which is the most common type among women. This hair loss is caused by an increase in male hormones. You also may see facial breakouts as well as an increase in facial hair loss.
  • Telogen shedding, in which women lose a lot of hair over a short period of time due to dramatic hormonal changes. Fortunately, hair usually grows back once hormones level out.
  • Alopecia areata, in which hair falls out in patches during a short period of time. This hair loss tends to recur and the hair doesn't always grow back.

Hair loss in menopausal women can be caused by issues other than hormonal changes. The culprit could be illness, physical damage to the scalp, stress, diet, and lack of exercise. Another possibility could be medications that have a side effect that causes hair to thin.

So if you're experiencing hair loss, you need to focus on eating a healthy diet that includes enough protein and iron, as well as exercising. Find ways to reduce your stress level. Make sure to protect your hair when you're outside. Also be careful when you dry your hair to keep the blow dryer far enough from your head so it doesn't burn the scalp.   If those steps don't work, make an appointment with your doctor to see if there are any underlying causes of hair loss, such as a disease, disorder or a medication.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Falsetto, S. (2010). Hair loss & menopause.

Parker Pope, T. (2009). Unlocking the secrets of gray hair. New York Times. (2009). Why hair turns gray is no longer a gray area: Our hair bleaches itself as we grow older.

Seaman, B. & Eldridge, L. (2008). The no-nonsense guide to menopause. London: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.