Does having grey hair increase your risk of heart disease?
10th April 2017
News stories have suggested that if you have grey or white hair you’re at an increased risk of heart disease.
Research suggesting that men with grey hair are at higher risk of heart disease has received widespread news coverage. Although being older raises your risk of both grey hair and heart disease, the research suggests that there is still a link, independently of your chronological age.
They suggest that in future health professionals could score how grey or white a patient's hair is, and use this score to predict their risk of coronary heart disease.
The study looked at men only, therefore cannot be applied to women
The first weakness of the study is that it looked at men only, therefore cannot be applied to women. Secondly, it is quite a small sample size (545 men), which increases the chances that the findings are a coincidence rather than a genuine link, and also could make them less representative of the general population. Of those 545, 80 per cent had heart disease - leaving just 109 who didn't have heart disease, which is a small number on which to base a finding that having more less grey hair affects your risk of having heart disease or not.
It is also important to note that the news story was based on so far unpublished research from Cairo University in Egypt. It was from a presentation at a conference in spain (EuroPrevent 2017). The coverage is based on a press release, rather than a full report of the research. This means the journalists couldn’t have looked at the study in detail. This makes the coverage less reliable as the journalists haven’t been able to look at all of the facts, or get the full details of the study.
The researchers suggest that the reason for this link could be because both grey (or white) hair and atherosclerosis (the build up of fatty material inside your arteries – the process that leads to coronary heart disease) are caused by “DNA repair, inflammation, hormonal changes and halted cell growth”, so they suggested that looking at people’s hair could tell them about their coronary heart disease risk.
Patients were divided into different subgroups according to the percentage of grey (or white) hairs they had, and whether or not they had coronary heart disease. The researchers reported: “Patients with coronary artery disease had a statistically significant higher hair whitening score”, but we don't know how big an increase in risk this actually is - “statistically significant” could still be a very small increase in risk, or it could be much larger.
We don’t know how big an increase in risk this actually is
Another issue with this is that the categories (according to the press release) were: 1 = pure black hair, 2 = black more than white, 3 = black equals white, 4 = white more than black, and 5 = pure white. It’s unclear whether this is because only men with black hair (as opposed to red, brown or blonde) were used, or whether it is a poor categorising system.
The researchers acknowledged that a larger study, with both men and women, is ‘required to confirm the association between hair greying and cardiovascular disease in patients without other known cardiovascular risk factors.’
The BHF view
Emily Reeve, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Unfortunately atherosclerosis and greying hair are just a part of the ageing process and some people are more susceptible than others.
If you're over 40 and worried about your heart health, ask your GP for a free health check
“But while a few grey hairs are easily fixed, we need to fund more medical research to find a way to stop your arteries from narrowing and cut your risk of heart disease.
“A much larger study is needed before we start using hair colour as a measure of heart disease risk. If you're over 40 and worried about your heart health you should ask your GP for a free health check.”
The story was covered in The Mirror, the Daily Mail, and The Telegraph.
The Daily Mail article was particularly unrepresentative of the study, as its main image was a woman with grey hair, despite the fact that no women were included in this study. This could be detrimental if women with grey or white hair see the image and think they are more at risk. It also used an image of a man who appears to be having a heart attack, but the research didn’t look at heart attacks specifically.
The headlines all focus on grey, rather than white, hair, even though the research looked at both. This could be because the press release for the research doesn’t mention white hair until the fourth paragraph.