June 15th, 2009
10:12 AM ET

Is radiation causing prematurely gray hair?

By Madison Park
CNNHealth Writer

I was 22 years old when I plucked a gray strand from my tangled black hair.

I showed my mom the strange silver hair, and she shot me the "I-told-you-so" look.  She always told me that watching TV or being on the computer  would make me prematurely gray.

Her evidence: Every computer engineer she knew got gray in her 30's, but she only knew one computer engineer. So I dismissed this as a kooky theory.

But my gray encounter sparked a curiosity. I’ve seen an occasional silver strand and sometimes a scattering of gray hairs on students, teens and even kids.  One mother wrote to CNNhealth after spotting a strand of gray hair on her 3½-year-old daughter.

Could younger people be graying earlier?  Could it be hereditary or are there environmental factors - like  TVs and computer screens– as my mother suggested?

While researchers have no definitive answers, scientists in Japan say that "genotoxic stress" damages cells which are responsible for hair color. When these melanocyte stem cells die, we get irreversible graying, according to a report released this month in the journal Cell.

Our DNAs are under constant attack by chemicals, ultraviolet light and ionizing radiation, said one of the authors, Dr. Emi Nishimura of Kanazawa University.

In nature, ionizing radiation can come from cosmic rays from the sun and stars, and radioactive materials in rocks and soil, according to the National Institutes of Health. But ionizing radiation also comes from man-made sources, such as X-rays, televisions, smoke detectors, building materials, tobacco smoke, and mining and agricultural products, such as granite, coal, and potassium salt.

"It is estimated that a single cell in mammals can encounter approximately 100,000 DNA damaging events per day,” Nishimura wrote in an email. "But is not clear which kind of sources for genotoxic stress are the major contributors to aging or hair graying."

In Nishimura’s experiment, 7-to-8-week-old brown and black mice were exposed to whole-body X-rays. "If we try lower doses (of ionizing radiation), you can see a salt and pepper pattern in their hair," Nishimura said.  "With a bit higher doses, you can see more white hair.  Most of the hair became white."

While studies in mice don't always apply to humans, they can provide scientific clues.

“We discovered that hair graying, the most obvious aging phenotype, can be caused by the genomic damage response" wrote the researchers from the Center for Cancer and Stem Cell Research at Kanazawa University in Japan. The results on mice "suggest that physiological hair graying can be triggered by the accumulation of unavoidable DNA damage."

I haven't seen another gray hair in years, but I'm on the lookout.

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Donna Wood Lil' Tennessee

    I started going grey at 16 years of age. My Grandmother on my Mom's side of the family had completely white hair by the time she was 20 years of age. I worked for three years taking dental x-rays for an oral surgeon I worked with and was going grey long before that. I believe it's genetic. I am basing this on my own personal experience.

    Donna Wood
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    June 15, 2009 at 21:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Mary Calif

    I have two brothers and one sister. My brothers and I, all born during the early 1950's, were x-rayed "in utero". This was before ultrasonography, and our mother's physician, suspecting some problem with her pregnancies, took the extreme step of using x-rays to verify they were normal. My mother was under the care of another physician when she was pregnant with my sister, and no x-rays were performed. My brothers and I produce minimal melanin and have had platinum hair since birth, although with hazel or blue eyes and without some symptoms that one associates with true albinism. My sister has auburn hair and more normal skin coloring. I suspect that multiple factors may influence loss of hair color. Radiation is perhaps one of these and genetics another - and some of us may have been affected by both!

    June 17, 2009 at 23:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Nancy Rawson

    If this hypothesis were true, all airline personnel would be gray early – which does not seem to be the case at least based on my personal knowledge (small n), and not based on in-air observations but on people I know in the industry personally, so I know they aren't dying their hair!

    June 18, 2009 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.