What Your Hair Tells Your Doctor / by Anne Kreamer

Does early graying or balding mean a shorter life span? According to a study of 20,000 men and women in the Copenhagen City Heart Study, neither baldness nor grayness are linked to premature death. The study, which followed the 20,000 participants over three years, found "no correlation between the mortality and the extent of graying of the hair or baldness or facial wrinkles in either of the sexes, irrespective of age."  Whew!

But even though this big random study indicates that having gray hair doesn't mean a person will die earlier, there is a risk associated with having prematurely gray hair. Dr. Lawrence Wood, the head of the Thyroid Foundation of America, recommends that women who start going gray before the age of 30 should be checked for a variety of auto-immune disorders. According to Wood, "juvenile (Type 1) diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, colitis and hypothyroidism are all conditions that may track with premature graying."

The thyroid, a gland just below the Adam's apple, produces a hormone that is essential for the muscles, organs and brain to function properly. Hypothyroidism, a condition created when the gland produces too little of the hormone, can cause a wide range of symptoms: fatigue, depression, and even high cholesterol.

I wish I had known this when I developed hypothyroidism about six years ago. I felt blue, like I was "under water," and began to gain weight. But it took a while to diagnose my condition - those symptoms are also the same as normal signs of aging.

Had I known that starting to go gray in one's 20s - as I did - is a signal to pay closer attention for the onset of auto-immune diseases, I certainly would have been more vocal in letting my doctors know that beneath my dyed hair I was gray.

Once I was diagnosed, I saw an endocrinologist who was emphatic in his support for checking thyroid function early - particularly in childbearing years.

Left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to miscarriage, premature birth and pre-eclampsia. So regardless of whether you color your hair, do let your doctor know if you're gray underneath the dye, and when you started going gray.