(July 28, 2003)
Years ago an association was made between prematurely gray hair and pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia is an autoimmune disorder in which antibodies damage stomach cells. The damaged cells lose the ability to absorb vitamin B12 and the result is known as pernicious anemia.
Then doctors began to notice that prematurely gray hair was also associated with other autoimmune disorders, particularly hyperthyroidism due to Graves’ disease and hypothyroidism due to chronic thyroiditis (Hashimoto’s disease). Because of this, many physicians routinely ordered vitamin B12 levels, as well as thyroid hormone test in individuals whom they know were prematurely gray.
But because more and more women are coloring their hair, now some physicians may not know whether their patient has gray and therefore may not ask whether were prematurely gray and therefore at risk for these autoimmune disorders.
There are some serious health risks for individuals who have untreated hidden thyroid illness.
For young women there are risks in pregnancy. A women who is pregnant and has even mild thyroid deficiency manifested by an elevation of serum thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) level could face serious problems. Her risks are increased for miscarriage, premature delivery, a low birth weight baby, and hypertension before delivery.
Older individuals with unrecognized hypothyroidism could experience fatigue, depression, fluid retention, muscle cramps, and an elevation in cholesterol, increasing their risk for heart disease.
Individuals with unrecognized hyperthyroidism may experience difficulty getting pregnant, miscarriage, osteoporosis, and serious heart complications, including atrial fibrillation (a rhythm disorder) and heart attacks.
The program being carried out by the hair stylists at Daryl Christopher Salons and the Thyroid Foundation of America educates the public about these relationships.
"We are sincerely hoping to facilitate communication between patients and their physicians, so that individuals who should be screened for thyroid dysfunction are having the appropriate tests," says Dr. Lawrence C. Wood, TFA’s Medical Director. "The tests are simple and accurate. A blood sample is taken and measured for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and antithyroid peroxidase (anti-TPO) antibody. The TSH tells whether the patient needs treatment now (a low TSH indicates hyperthyroidism while an increased TSH indicates an underactive thyroid). The anti-TPO antibody test tells whether an individual is at increased risk for thyroid dysfunction. Most thyroid specialists would recommend that an individual who test positive for this antibody should have repeat tests for TSH every three months if pregnant or once a year if not pregnant."
In our program, patients will take their knowledge about prematurely gray hair and thyroid dysfunction to their physician and ask the physician whether its appropriate for them to have a serum TSH and an anti-TPO antibody test to find out whether they have a thyroid problem now and are at risk for one in the future.
"Of course it is up to the patients’ physicians to decide whether testing should be done," according to Dr. Wood. "The Thyroid Foundation of America recognizes that it is the responsibility of the physician to make these choices. Our program is designed to remind physicians of the significance of prematurely gray hair as a clue to hidden thyroid problems."
The idea of family screening means that the individuals who are prematurely gray should consider their family’s health as well. On the side of the family where the prematurely gray hair comes from there may be relatives who have thyroid dysfunction or other medical conditions that need treatment. For example physicians may want to measure vitamin B12 levels in older individuals to look for pernicious anemia which may present as anemia, peripheral neuropathy with numb hands and feet, or even as an emotional disorder.
Dr. Wood pointed out that the study is being done with great care
to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. Patients are
giving a numbered document that they take to their physicians. When
they and their relatives have completed thyroid testing they will
return the results of their test in their numbered report rather
than with their name. Information will then be complied anonymously
to find out how many individuals were tested and how many new individuals were found who had hidden thyroid problems that needed treatment.
All participants will be sent a summary of the reports, which also will be made available to their physicians.
Angela Guido, Director and Founder of Daryl Christopher Salons, and Dr. Wood hope to first confirm their idea that this is a good way to find individuals with hidden thyroid disease. Once the plan proves successful, they hope to expand to other areas.
"We wanted to be sure that physicians and clients alike were comfortable with the way this information is presented to them and address any questions or concerns that come up during the study. Once we are satisfied with the program and it has been shown to be helpful in identifying hidden thyroid illness, we would like to see it expanded to other salons in New England and ultimately throughout the United States."
"We would like nothing better than to see this program expanded to other countries," says Dr. Wood. "The gray hair is a clue that we haven’t paid enough attention to as a risk factor for health problems. Both Angela Guido and I sincerely want this to be a health benefit for as many people as possible."
If you have any further questions, please contact TFA via email or via telephone at 1-800-832-8321.
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