By Jennifer Gish/HealthyLife, published by timesunion.com
It didn't matter where she was – at the movies with people in the row behind her or at a work meeting where she could see herself during a video conference – Laura thought about her thinning hair so often it had become a distraction.
Laura, a 54-year-old from the Capital Region who asked that her last name not be used because of the sensitive nature of hair loss, noticed the change in her hair when she was in her 30s. At first, she told people she simply had "fine" hair, but soon she realized it was thin. She'd go to the hairdresser seeking creative ways to cover the thin and sometimes bare spots, but it became an increasingly difficult puzzle for the hairdresser to figure out. People began asking her if she was ill.
"I really didn't think there was anything that I could do about it, that it was just the way it was and that I would live with it," she says, adding that her grandmother had thinning hair. "And that went until I got into my 40s and just found that I was becoming more self-conscious when I saw pictures... It may be tougher for women than it is for men overall because so much emphasis is placed [on it]. You see the commercials with the full hair, and it does make you think about how people might perceive you."
While bald can be beautiful on men, it's rare that you'll see a bald woman gracing a magazine cover. And though thinning at the temples or a landing strip of baldness down the center of the head can be a difficult part of the aging process for many men, thinning patches of hair are often a completely unexpected loss for women. That's in spite of the fact that 40 percent of American hair loss sufferers are female, according to the American Hair Loss Association, a California-based national consumer organization aimed at educating about hair loss.
Although the association says 90 percent of hair loss in men is due to male pattern baldness, the causes of hair loss in women can be varied. Like men, it can be hereditary, and will happen in women as they age. Sometimes, it can be caused by hormonal shifts, drug side effects or stress. And sometimes it's a sign of an underlying health condition, which is why it's important for women to see a doctor if clumps of hair head for the drain with the bubbles from their favorite shampoo.
But because women are often upset by the loss, they often have a hard time broaching the subject with their doctor. "Emotionally it's very hard for many females because we all would like to be attractive... They have a lot of trouble, low self-esteem. It can get into depression even if it's not getting addressed," says Dr. Inesa Salei, a family medicine physician with Ellis Medicine who practices in Malta. "But (hair loss) can be a symptom of something more major in a body because symptoms go slowly and add to each other and the patient may not even be paying attention to it."
Salei once saw a female patient who was in tears over her thinning hair. After an examination, family history and some tests, the doctor discovered the cause of the woman's hair loss was low vitamin D levels and high stress. After addressing those issues, the woman is now doing well and her hair is returning.
Laura says she's happy she sought treatment and didn't accept hair loss as her genetic destiny. "As with anything, you have to be realistic. I'm not going to have that thick mane of hair, but I'm pleased with the outcome I do have, and I don't have the sense of self-consciousness," she says. "It's really not all that much of an investment, and it's one where the value of it is there's more peace of mind, less self-consciousness when I'm at work or out in public settings. More focus on what I should be focusing on."