Pulse: Health: My Hair-Raising Adventure

Hair loss isn’t just a problem for men. It’s a major issue for women, too

ONE THING I never worried about was losing my hair. When I was growing up, my hair was so thick and heavy that every time I got it cut, the beautician used thinning shears. Then, about four years ago, I began to notice more strands of hair stuck to my brush and littering my sink. I fell into a panic — and did some research to see what I could do.

The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that at least half the women in the U.S. will experience some form of hair loss by the time they hit 50. The problem typically falls into a few general categories, explains Susan Taylor, a Pennsylvania Hospital dermatologist. One, telogen effluvium, describes a generalized hair-shedding. It can occur in the months post-childbirth, after you stop birth control pills, or after a major emotional or physical trauma. Fortunately, in most cases it recedes within a year.

Another type of effluvium is brought on by medication or a medical problem, such as severe anemia, hormonal or endocrine abnormalities, or a thyroid disorder. Dermatologists will take a history, then order blood tests and maybe a scalp biopsy to determine the cause. That’s how I learned that an underactive thyroid was the reason my hair had begun to paper the bathroom floor. “These conditions are treatable and often reversible,” says Taylor, “but it may take up to a year.” After I started thyroid medication, my hair did grow back, but not as densely as before. Turns out I was also suffering from the third type of hair loss, female pattern baldness.

The official label for this widespread hair loss is “androgenic alopecia.” Women don’t get large bald spots like men do, but if your hair is relentlessly thinning, your hairline is becoming more see-through and your part is growing wider—you’ve got FPB. It’s genetic, and occurs with the plummeting estrogen levels related to menopause.

Some women will opt to slow the progression of FPB with the topical solution minoxidil (marketed as Rogaine). “This can take up to a year for results,” says Penn dermatologist George Cotsarelis, “and it’s better for keeping what you have than replacing what you’ve lost.”

But I wanted more immediate gratification — and found it in the Bala Cynwyd office of Joseph Gallagher, a former orthopedic surgeon who switched to hair transplantation in 1993. The transplant game has greatly changed since the days when hair plugs looked as clunky as the name implies. Gallagher examined the bare spots on either side of my forehead, ran his hands over my head, noted that I had plenty of donor hair (that’s critical), and declared me an ideal candidate.