SENIOR POWER Goin’ gray: Chlorophyl To Xanthophyl

By Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Friday June 21, 2013 - 07:18:00 AM

American poet-playwright Edward Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) wrote, “The gods are growing old; The stars are singing Golden hair to gray. Green leaf to yellow leaf,—or chlorophyll To xanthophyl, to be more scientific.” Why is gray hair the quintessential old age indicator? Why not wrinkles, instead, for example? And it’s international. Grey in Great Britain. Agence France Presse recently described “Japan’s elderly not acting their age,” when Saitama Gold Theatre auditioned only people aged 55+, referring to a greying society.  

Even Solomon (iv.8,) "Wisdom is the gray hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age.” What would he have said about the little old gray-haired lady’s contention that old age is not a disease—it is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses? American activist Maggie Kuhn (1905-1995), the Gray Panthers movement founder, after the Presbyterian Church forced her into retirement, advised “Anyone growing older without enthusiasm has got to manufacture it, pretend it. Do it until it becomes like self-hypnosis. Manufacture enthusiasm as you go and grow.” 

At what point should graying be expected, considered normal? According to many “women’s books and magazines,” a possible consequence of hysterectomy is premature graying, or timing has something to do with menopause. Irene Renee Ange in her 1996 SFSU Gerontology M.A. thesis — Women, Aging, and Hair Color — concluded “… I see indications that reality, as it relates to graying and aging, hair coloring and personal appearance, has shifted significantly in the past thirty years.” She predicted that the following twenty years would see “an even greater shift, as the post-feminist baby boomers age, bringing with them into aging not only unprecedented numbers of potential gray heads, but a modern awareness of the sexist, ageist, and feminist issues which help form our collective reality. The willingness of women to disclose their use of coloring products alone can be viewed both as a significant step on the way to greater acceptance of gray hair, and as a step towards color decisions being made for reasons other than fear.” (For Berkeley Public Library card-holders, this excellent document can be borrowed via The Link.) 


A former Vogue magazine marketing director, in her Going Gray, Looking Great, acknowledges that “We see men as better-looking as they get older, but that’s because we are culturally attuned to it. Gray Hair means admitting to a certain age, and for men, that’s okay.” Perhaps someone someday somewhere will research Men, Aging, and Hair Color.  



The change in many people’s regard for dying their own hair may evidence a bright side. They – we — don’t care who knows! Doesn’t matter. “Stylists” prefer “coloring” or “tinting.” The main reasons for this practice are cosmetic— to cover gray hair, to change to a color regarded as more fashionable or desirable, or to restore the original hair color after it has been discolored by hairdressing processes or sun bleaching. Hair dyeing is an ancient art, involving treatment of the hair with various chemical compounds. Today, hair coloring is immensely popular, with over 75% of American women dyeing their hair (I use Nice N Easy #117) or having their hair dyed. And it’s big business.  

Scientists have found that people who are going gray build up hydrogen peroxide in the hair follicle, which causes hair to bleach itself from the inside out. This could be reversed by "an antioxidant" cocktail that allows "re-pigmentation" of the hair. Gray hair could become “a thing of the past,” they say! 

The discovery of what makes hair gray was actually made during investigation of the skin disease vitiligo, the condition Michael Jackson claimed to suffer from that causes loss of inherited skin and hair color. "Massive epidermal oxidative stress" leading to the build-up of hydrogen peroxide is blamed. For the study, the research team analyzed an international group of 2,411 vitiligo patients, who were treated with pseudocatalase activated via sunlight. Researchers noticed that skin and eyelashes pigment returned. The editor of the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, in which this was reported (Daily Telegraph, London May 6, 2013), says that the same treatment could be developed to allow "repigmentation" of grey hair or to stop its going grey in the first place. In the meantime the priority should be development of a treatment for vitiligo, which can cause serious social problems for patients. The improvement of quality of life after total and even partial successful repigmentation has been documented. 

Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number; Black Women Explore Midlife is a collection of 43 essays. Two concern hair. Brenda J. Allen contends that “Hair matters at midlife. Since I’ve stopped dyeing my hair, more people than ever are calling me ma’am. Salespeople even ask me if I’m eligible for a senior citizen discount.” Notably, however, she refers to her “silver” hair 

“Gray pussy hair” by Opan Palmer Adisa is the other essay.  

Enough said: The U.S. spends $2.8 trillion a year on health care, about 18% of the economy. Some spending is on Medicare-reimbursed eyelid lifts — a procedure that sometimes serves a medical need but often is for cosmetic enhancement. Most would agree Medicare should fund 

medical need, but not to make seniors look better, although looking better makes one feel better! Medicare has been at the center of this debate because it consumes tax dollars: about 16% of federal spending today and an estimated 18% by 2023. Over the past decade, the number of reimbursed eyelid-lift procedures has tripled while the cost to taxpayers has quadrupled, from $20 to $80 mil. Medicare traditionally avoids coverage for cosmetic procedures such as Botox or breast augmentation except after medically necessary breast removal. So why cover eyelid lifts? Isn’t it possible that more of the elderly are suffering real vision problems in need of corrective surgery to correct impaired peripheral vision? But it appears that a disproportionate number of these patients who want to look younger live in one state… In 2008 50+% of the 20 highest-billing physicians were in Florida, where one doctor submitted for 2,200 eyelid lifts.