Odds are high that you’ll develop gray hair at some point in your life, but new research suggests that going gray may have greater implications than just changing your hair color: It could put you at an increased risk of having heart problems.
According to a study recently presented at EuroPrevent 2017, gray hair is linked to an increased risk of heart disease in men. For the study, researchers assessed how common gray hair was in patients with coronary artery disease, and whether it was a risk factor. They observed 545 adult men, most of whom were in their 50s, that doctors suspected had heart disease and had the men undergo diagnostic X-ray testing. The men were then divided into groups, depending on whether they actually had heart disease, and how much gray or white hair they had. Researchers also took note of a person’s traditional risk factors for heart disease, such as hypertension, diabetes, smoking, and a family history of the disease.
Here’s what they found: People who had equal parts of their natural hair color and white or gray hair had a higher risk of coronary artery disease than their counterparts who had no or little gray hair. That was also true independent of their age and other risk factors for heart disease. People who were diagnosed with heart disease also had a statistically significant higher likelihood of having gray or white hair than those who didn’t have heart disease.
The two conditions may seem wildly unrelated, but researchers says that atherosclerosis, a condition in which there is buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other matter in and on a person’s artery walls, and graying hair have similar mechanisms, such as impaired DNA repair, oxidative stress, inflammation, and hormonal changes. “Atherosclerosis and hair graying occur through similar biological pathways, and the incidence of both increases with age,” Irini Samuel, MD, a cardiologist at Cairo University in Egypt who worked on the research, says in a press release. “Our findings suggest that, irrespective of chronological age, hair graying indicates biological age and could be a warning sign of increased cardiovascular risk.”
Allan Stewart, MD, director of aortic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells Yahoo Beauty that the findings are “very surprising.” Gray hair is a marker of aging, which is also a risk factor for heart disease, but there are many people who have premature gray hair, he says. “Your body may be subject to other aging, including coronary arteries, if you’re prematurely gray,” he says.
Richard Wright, MD, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty that this could conceivably apply to women as well. Researchers probably studied men instead of women because men tend to go gray sooner, and it would be harder to establish a correlation in women, he explains.
But Ragavendra Baliga, MD, a cardiologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Beauty that people shouldn’t panic over their heart disease risk if they have gray hair. While researchers found an association between the two, they didn’t establish that having gray hair actually causes heart disease (or vice versa).
Gray hair isn’t a modifiable risk, Baliga points out — meaning, you really can’t do anything to prevent developing greys — but there are things you can do to lower your overall heart disease risk, such as exercising regularly, eating well, keeping your cholesterol levels down, and avoiding smoking. And no, dying your hair won’t fight off a heart attack.
If you have gray hair, follow good heart-health practices, and are still nervous about your heart disease risk, Wright says you can talk to your doctor about getting your heart checked. Your doctor may decide that a more aggressive treatment, like taking a baby aspirin daily, is warranted.
But, Stewart says, don’t get too freaked out about the findings: “Having a presence of premature gray hair doesn’t mean you’re going to have a heart attack tomorrow.”
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