I am 25-years-old, and my hair is falling out. Granted, this according to my mother, who also thinks I should wear woolly sweaters until mid-May and that the amount of food on my plate is never quite enough... but I can't help feeling that this time, she may be right. Hair loss is supposed to be hair-editary (sorry), but both my parents are still actively sprouting, and my Dad is in his seventies. What gives? Well, thanks to research conducted by Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and others, I can only blame myself.
Langer published her thoughts and selected findings most recently in the December issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Since Descartes, she writes, "we have mindlessly accepted mind/body dualism," that is, the idea that our mind and body are separate, even conflicting entities. But Langer argues that even if we don't understand exactly how or why, our thoughts do affect our bodies, often in surprising ways.
Since I am most interested in the shameful dereliction of duty displayed by my follicles, let's discuss for a moment the active removal thereof: the haircut. Langer and her team spent some time at a local salon, where they used 47 women as guinea pigs, taking their photograph and blood pressure before and after their cut and/or color, and asking them how old they felt. Women who felt younger after their treatment showed a statistically significant reduction in blood pressure. (Incidentally, if you're thinking: "Of course they did, I would too if someone massaged my scalp for 45 minutes," then I would congratulate you on your skeptical mindset but also point out that all women received the treatment, and only those who felt younger showed a decrease in blood pressure.)
The researchers then Photoshopped each woman's pictures (before and after the haircut), cropping out their hair. They then showed the images to independent raters (who, of course, did not know the purpose of the experiment) and asked the raters to estimate the women's ages. Shockingly, women who perceived themselves as younger actually appeared younger. Apparently if you feel younger, you look younger, not just to yourself, but to others too.
So it would seem that early onset alopecia is my own fault: I feel old, therefore my hair falls out. But suppose for a moment that I'm wrong; that my hair is falling out not because I feel old but because my grandfather's hair fell out when he was 25. Baldness, then, is not a symptom but rather a cue: because I'm losing my hair early, I feel older. And that, Langer suggests, can increase my risk for prostate cancer and coronary heart disease. A longitudinal study of almost 4,500 men found that prematurely bald men had a 50% excess risk of being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Another study found that progression of baldness (not baldness itself) was associated with coronary heart disease occurrence and mortality risk.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. I'm thinking it myself: there is no possible way to effectively control for all variables in studies like these. Am I going bald because I feel old? Or, worse, is going bald going to make me feel older and put me at risk for all sorts of diseases? Neither? Both? Or are other factors playing havoc with our notions of causality? I don't know. But I ask you: what's the harm in feeling young?
So no more "Ha, ha, I'm such and old man" jokes for me. A curmudgeon? Perhaps. A Grinch, a grouch, even a Scrooge? Sure.
But old? Never.