Why hair plays a disappearing act after 40

Nearly half of women over 40 suffer from hair loss, but take note: It’s not inevitable. Here’s how you can prevent future shedding and even regrow what’s been lost.

By Annemarie Iverson
Photograph: Photo by: Plamen Petkov

First, Assess Your Losses
Before deciding on a battle plan, you need to determine whether your hair loss is excessive or just gradual and normal. According to Orentreich, the classic definition of abnormal is when you lose more than 80 to 100 strands a day — or if you wash your hair only once or twice a week and have excessive shedding on those days (as in upward of 400 strands). Some cases are clear, but if you’re uncertain, a good, quick test is to run your hands through your hair: If you come away with eight or more full-length strands in your fingers with tiny root bulbs attached, then you’re an excessive case.
If you conclude that your loss is annoying but normal, check out "Feigning Fatter Strands" and "How I Scored More Strands in an Hour" for helpful tips. But if you’re shedding excessively, the next step is to find out why, and there are four likely possibilities.
1. You make it happen. Most receding hairlines are actually lifestyle induced. So if you’ve spent years pulling your hair back into taut ponytails, wearing a riding helmet that rubs at your forehead, or having hair extensions woven in at the root, don’t be surprised if the hair around your face is thinning out. But cheer up: The converse is also true, and altering these habits will allow your hair to grow back within three to six months.
2. Your past made it happen. If your lifestyle isn’t causing the hair loss, or if it isn’t limited to just your hairline, think back to what went on three months ago in your life: A new drug or a change in dosage? A crash diet? Childbirth? Blood loss? Anesthesia? High fever? Traumatic life event? "Your hair tells all," says Kim Vo, a Los Angeles colorist and stylist who tends the tresses of Goldie Hawn and Teri Hatcher. "Even if a client doesn’t mention anything specific, I can always tell something happened just by looking at her hair." If you did go through something fairly trying 12 weeks ago, but it’s over now, the loss you’re experiencing will be temporary and your hair should grow back. However, if the shedding is tied to something that started then but continues to this day — say, a new medication — you may want to talk to your doctor about your options.
3. Your body makes it happen. If your hair loss doesn’t seem to be due to a lifelong habit or a notable recent event, it’s time to ask your doctor to test your thyroid and iron levels. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of American women have thyroid dysfunction. For most of them, the thyroid slows down; for a small number, it speeds up. Either way, hair loss is a symptom. If your test results are positive for thyroid dysfunction, you’ll be given a regulating medication and your hair should grow back within six months. If it turns out an iron deficiency is your issue, most doctors recommend boosting your level with foods rich in the mineral, such as beef, beans, lentils, beets, and spinach. When anemia is severe (or you just can’t stomach an iron-rich diet), popping a supplement can also help. I am anemic and averse to most of the foods that could help, so my doctor put me on Slow Fe supplements. I take them once a day and they gradually release iron into the bloodstream, which helps to minimize the digestive gumming-up for which this nutrient is notorious.

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