Why does hair grow out of control in older people?

28 September 2008

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Question

Why do eyebrows start to grow out of control in old people? I was at the barbers last weekend, and after cutting his hair, the barber asked the elderly gentleman in front of me if he wanted his eyebrows trimmed (they did need it!).

Answer

We put this question to Des Tobin, Professor of Cell Biology, University of Bradford...

Hair growth is very susceptible to hormones, to the so-called sex steroid hormones: principally oestrogens and androgens. The dominant hormone for males is in the androgen category, particularly testosterone.

Surprisingly, the levels of testosterone continue to increase with age up until the age of 70. Since most male hair is responsive to androgens, with age and with increasing hormone levels you tend to get more and more vigorous hair growth, particularly in the areas that were perhaps not as robust as when the individual was younger. For example, on the nose, ears and on their eyebrows.

The nose and the ears have got thousands and thousands of hairs. They're so small you can't see them. In fact, the tip of the nose is the hairiest part of the body in terms of density of hairs per unit area.

With time, these tiny - formerly invisible - hairs can be stimulated with these male hormones, which go up with age, and can therefore become more cosmetically visible with age. The same applies for the eyebrows and for the ears.

In women, oestrogen levels drop after menopause, and their lower levels of testosterone become more engaged with the process of hair growth because they stimulate whereas oestrogens tend to inhibit.

So you're just releasing more stimulatory power from the androgens we have.

Comments

The answer claims that testosterone can continue to rise up until age 70. That doesn't happen. I would however agree with your comment above.

That explanation doesn't make sense and the same text has been copied and pasted into numerous sites. My eyebrows started to grow out of control at around age 45 and now at 58 it's even worse. My testosterone levels have dropped significantly with age and the lower my testosterone gets the more unwanted hair I get. As well as my eyebrows growing it of control a mat of thick black hair has appeared on my back. All my body hair that appeared when I was younger is almost blonde or ginger, so the black hair on my back and shoulders is strange. My eyebrows grow so quickly that I have to trim and pluck daily.

The take-home message is that overall exposure to testosterone across a life time is what is responsible for hair growth; so even though overall testosterone levels may drop with age, the hair follicles have been seeing testosterone over many years and it's this accumulated exposure that underlies increasing hairiness.

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