The Future of Gray Hair

Posted on 2011 June 18


I have gray hair on my wrists. What’s up with that?

Naturally, I’m getting gray on my chin and temples. (I’m also getting gray in some really weird places– uh, let’s not go there.) But my wrists?

I’ve seen this on other middle-aged men, so it’s not unusual. Still, it makes me wonder why we get gray in the first place.

Here’s my notion: Before modern medicine, people got knocked off almost randomly from the moment they were born, so anyone who lived a long time must have had something on the ball. As they grayed, their prestige went up. This gave them extra chances to mate and have children. And so gray hair was passed down to us.

But gray follicles can’t appear just anywhere. It must crop up in highly visible spots, or what’s the point? Hence, men tend to get gray on their faces, and both sexes gray at the temples. (Side hair is farthest forward for everyone, including the bald. Ah, baldness! What’s that for?)

And then there are those weird gray hairs on the wrists. I wondered about that until I remembered that military uniforms often sport light-colored stripes on the wrists. The higher the rank, the more the stripes. It makes sense: the hands reach out to shake other hands, to salute, and to do work, whereupon the insignia of rank become plainly visible to all. Are these stripes an echo of the original gray-haired wrists of the wise and powerful elders of yore?

Today, though, when most people live to old age, the advantage of gray hair has become moot. In fact, it’s probably a drawback: seniors tend to get set in their ways, and — in our youthful and fast-moving high-tech culture — oldsters have begun to look quaint, if not pathetic, with their resistance to change.

Another problem with gray hair is that it’s become unfashionable, because now everyone can get some. Fashion trends often work this way. Before industrialization, only the wealthy could afford to stay indoors, and their pale skin marked them as social and economic superiors; a creamy complexion (e.g., “Snow White”) was therefore the standard of beauty. By the early 1920s, though, most people had moved indoors to work in factories; when they saw newsreel footage of movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks cavorting on a beach — their skins golden with tan — suddenly white skin was out, and a bronzed hide became the new mark of wealth and leisure. Similarly, people sought the creamy-white perfection of bleached bread until everyone could afford it, at which point dark breads re-emerged to become nutritional status symbols. And, at just about the exact moment when every American yokel could walk on wall-to-wall carpet, hardwood floors made a comeback.

If this were the extent of it, I’d predict that — a many generations from now — gray hair might begin to disappear from the human gene pool. (Military wrist stripes might well persist: unlike gray hair, not everyone can obtain them.) But there’s a catch: in a few dozen years, armed with the power of genomics, we may learn how to overcome aging and disease. And we’ll have tossed a monkey wrench into the future of gray hair.

Gerontologist Roy Walford calculated that the average lifespan of people untouched by age and illness would be about 300 years. (Why not immortality? Because we’d still kill each other, shoot ourselves, get drunk and drive off bridges, and jog on train tracks. Conquering age and disease won’t make us smart.) Suddenly, one generation of humans would increase from about 20 years to well past 100, as couples wait a century to reproduce themselves. The gene pool wouldn’t have time to adjust to this new, much slower norm. (Given enough centuries, perhaps gray hair would evolve to appear much more slowly, so that a 200-year-old would be somewhat grayer than a 100-year-old.) In any case, silver locks might become fashionable again — if only to confirm that the oldest are, once more, the wisest.

Whatever happens to future humans, I guess I’m stuck with my gray wrist hairs.