Graying hair is generally associated with growing old. While gray hair and the aging process are inextricably linked, the premature arrival of silver strands is closely linked to your genes. At the root of each hair are special cells called melanocytes, explains GreyHairLoss.Com. These cells are pre-programmed to produce melanin, the pigment that gives your hair its vibrant hue, for a designated period of time and no longer. As some point during your life, these melanocytes stop working and gray hair peppers your scalp. Medical conditions and certain extrinsic factors can hasten it along.
Prematurely gray hair has its roots in your genetic makeup, according to a March 2009 in the "New York Times." If your parents and other family members got white hair early in life, this ups your chance of experiencing the same. This doesn't mean that the rest of your body is prematurely aging, states the "New York Times" article, nor does premature gray mean you'll die any sooner. Also, your gray might have arrived on the expected schedule. Caucasians start to go gray as early as their mid-30s, according to the "New York Times." Around half of people who are 50 years of age are 50 percent gray.
Certain medical conditions can contribute to premature graying. Among these are vitiligo, a condition in which the skin begins to lose its ability to produce melanin. Vitiligo is primarily characterized by white patches on the skin, states MayoClinic.Com, but prematurely gray hair all over the body, including the scalp, eyelashes and beard, can also occur. Premature gray hair is also associated with Werner's syndrome, thyroid disorders and pernicious anemia, a severe form of vitamin B12 deficiency, says Aetna Inteliheath writer Rhonda B. Graham.
Smoking is also associated with gray hair, writes Graham, who indicates that smoker are four times as likely to experience premature gray than nonsmokers, for reasons unknown. Use of certain medications, such as methotrexate, a treatment for arthritis and cancer, and lithium, used to treat manic depression is also associated with gray hair. The jury's still out on psychological factors as a cause of premature gray, according to the "New York Times," which states that there's no scientific research to link gray hair to stress.
Gray Hair Myths
A old wives tale is that strong emotions such as stress and fear can turn gray overnight, however, this has been discredited by urban legend debunker Cecil Adams, from "The Straight Dope." There is a condition called diffuse alopecia areata that affects people with salt and pepper hair, causing pigmented hair to fall out in a short period of time while leaving gray hair intact. This may create the perception that someone with alopecia areata has gone gray "overnight."