Hair loss happens to many people, including men and women, and a lot of the time, there’s not a lot that can be done about it. Genetic clues that you’ll be prone to hair loss are subject to a lot of myths that no one can seem to remember — is it your dad’s dad who’s hair pattern will somehow predict yours, or your mom’s dad? While knowing one way or the other won’t make a difference in the long run, there are a few gene variations and genetic disorders that can impact your chances of hair loss.
40 percent of women have visible hair loss by the time they turn 40, according to a study by the American Academy of Dermatology, but there are certain genetic factors that seem to make some women more prone to it than others. Female pattern baldness, as it’s called, is actually often distinct from male pattern baldness and appears to have several different genetic causes, so don’t read up on male balding and assume it will apply seamlessly to your situation.
Research know enough about hair loss to be pretty certain it’s not all genetic; everything from stress to diet can influence rates of hair loss in all genders. It’s worth noting that chemically treating and bleaching your hair likely won’t do anything to your follicles, where hair loss occurs; if your hair feels thinner when you’ve been dyeing it for years, it’s likely because of breakage and damage. But genetics do appear to play an interesting role in the tendency to lose hair, and you can get clues to your genetic inheritance easier than ever before these days, thanks to things like home DNA testing kits. If these clues turn up in genetic testing, it’s worth seeing checking in with your dermatologist to see what they might mean for you.
Researchers in the Netherlands have found that in women, there’s a particular variation on a gene in the X chromosome that may lead to female pattern baldness. The gene itself is an androgen receptor, or AR. Androgen is a hormone, and women experience higher levels of it over time as they age. Too much androgen leads to impaired follicular growth and much frailer hair.
Scientists had already known that the AR gene was a cause of hair loss in men and women. “Although researchers suspect that several genes play a role in androgenetic alopecia, variations in only one gene, AR, have been confirmed in scientific studies,” says the National Library of Medicine. And this is one of the clearest cases in which women’s baldness is linked to genetic causes.
A study in 2018 from the University of Bonn found that there’s a genetic component behind a kind of hair loss that starts in childhood, called hypotrichosis. Apparently, it’s caused by a variation in the LSS gene, which influences how the body metabolizes cholesterol. It seems that the mutation creates issues with the hair follicle itself, which causes hair to fall out. It’s not clear if this applies to standard adult baldness yet — this is a very new discovery — but it’s worth keeping in mind. “A better understanding of the causes of the disease may in future enable new approaches to the treatment of hair loss,” said the scientists behind the discovery in a press release.
Hypotrichosis has also led to another genetic insight into adult hair loss. In 2010, researchers identified a gene that, when mutated, produced hair loss in children — and in the same sort of way that hair begins to thin as we age. The gene in question, APCDD1, appears to cause hair follicles to shrink, a process called miniaturization. When that happens, hair thins and becomes very fine and breakable. It turns out that APCDD1 controls a signal about hair growth in the body, and fiddling with it can turn off hair growth in mice.
Why does this matter? Because women in particular experience hair changes that involve thinning rather than complete baldness — and APCDD1 is in an important place in the chromosome. “APCDD1 may be implicated in polygenic hair follicle disorders as well, because it resides within linkage intervals on chromosome 18 in families with androgenetic alopecia,” say the scientists in their study. In other words, the APCDD1 gene may be a part of inherited hair loss too.
Nurse Nicole Galan writes for Verywell that polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, can cause female pattern baldness because of how the illness interferes in androgen levels. “Many women with PCOS have problems with thinning scalp hair, known as androgenetic alopecia,” she notes. “This is usually due to the high levels of androgens which are found in women with PCOS.”
PCOS has a strong genetic component; the US National Library of Medicine explains that genes related to hormonal production, energy production, follicular health and insulin production are all part of the makeup for PCOS. If your genetic inheritance includes a tendency towards polycystic ovaries, you may have a higher likelihood of hair loss, too.
Science is still a long way from genet-based targeted therapy for hair loss, for men or women. However, by the time many of us are in our twilight years, it may be possible to do some genetic tinkering and make our long locks flow thickly again.