Kenyan men are balding and growing grey hair earlier than their fathers and grandparents. If you look around, you will see the many salted chins and silver heads of 30-something-year-olds. In years past, this was a sign of imminent retirement. But what has changed?
Dr Nicholas Ochieng’, a dermatologist at Kenyatta National Hospital explains that Kenyans are balding and greying earlier due to myriad factors, including emotional stress, smoking, vitamin deficiency, poor quality hair chemicals, alcoholism and autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus and arthritis.
He says “balding also has something to do with diet as some foods which are deficient in proteins and minerals like iron have been proven to be a common cause”.
Ochieng’ also cites genetics, lifestyle, fatigue, insomnia, environment, poverty and offices carrying heavy responsibilities like the presidency. US President Barack Obama went into office with jet black hair in 2008 and left with a grey head two terms later.
And it is not just presidents who are greyed by their offices. James Mworia, CEO of Centum, is in his early 40s. He said in an interview that when construction of the multi-billion Two Rivers Mall along Limuru Road began, his hair was black, but greyed in three years by the time of its opening in 2017.
Presidents grey faster in office
Ochieng’, however, says the commonest cause of premature greying is genetics, which is cast in stone.
Race also matters as greying is more common among black races with dark hair as opposed to whites, and that “although grey hair is a characteristic of ageing, colourless hair strands can appear at any age, even while one is still in high school or college,” says Ochieng’.
Chronic stress leading to insomnia, anxiety, change in appetite and high blood pressure also causes greying, according to Dr Paul Saoke, a private practitioner, who cites a 2013 One Study Trusted Source which connected stress to depletion of stem cells in hair follicles of mice.
“If you have noticed a rise in your number of grey/white strands, stress might be the culprit,” he says, fingering it as the reason presidents grey faster in office.
Ochieng’ also adds that autoimmune diseases like alopecia and vitiligo can attack hair and cause loss of pigment. Then there is also thyroid disorders and the hormonal changes they cause like hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, which can cause greying.
The medic explains that the thyroid is located at the base of the neck where it helps in controlling metabolism and an over or underactive thyroid can lead to production of less melanin, which influences hair colour.
There is also vitamin B-12 whose deficiency can cause greying. “It contributes to healthy hair growth and hair colour as it carries oxygen to cells, including hair cells,” offers Ochieng’.
The 2013 One Study Trusted Source also found that “smoking constricts blood vessels, which can reduce blood flow to hair follicles and cause hair loss” while “toxins in cigarettes can damage… hair follicles, causing the hair to change colour”.
Geography also matters. Most men in rural Kenya, where 70 per cent of the population live, bald and grey faster than their urban counterparts due to high levels of poverty and hunger.
JJ Obara Jagongo of Technical University of Kenya opines that “if greying is partly caused due to stress, depression, continuous fatigue and anxiety, then men in rural areas must naturally develop grey hair faster than urbanites”.
Obara notes that climate change has caused food and cash crops production in rural areas to dwindle leading to stress and depression, which was not there before when men greyed in their 70s. Now “Covid-19 has worsened the economic situation”.
Obara, previously in security, also noted that environment matters as “people who were thrown into detention in the 1980s and 1990s greyed faster than their free age mates”.
Among most communities, balding was associated with wealth as most bald heads were richer, but today, baldness could be a sign of underlying causes due to poor lifestyle choices, including skipping meals and combing wet hair, according to Dr Joseph Aluoch, a consultant at Nairobi Hospital.
Skipping meals or not eating on time can force the body to direct the little energy it has towards essential functions, like helping the heart and the brain to work, not making hair.
“Make sure to include protein-rich food items like lentils, fish, and eggs,” explains Ochieng’. “This will help you in maintaining the hair as it is primarily made up of protein.”