What is male pattern baldness?
Male pattern baldness is the common type of hair loss that develops in most men at some stage. The condition is sometimes called androgenetic alopecia. It usually takes 15-25 years to go bald. However, some men go bald in fewer than five years.
Typically, at first the hair begins to recede (thin) at the front. At the same time, the hair usually becomes thin on the top of the head. A bald patch gradually develops in the middle of the scalp. The receding front, and the bald patch on the top (the crown) gradually enlarge and join together.
A rim of hair is often left around the back and sides of the scalp. In some men, this rim of hair also thins and goes to leave a completely bald scalp.
Who gets male pattern baldness?
Nearly all men have some baldness by the time they are in their 60s. However, the age the hair loss starts is variable. About three in ten 30 year-olds, and half of 50 year-olds are quite bald. Some women also develop a similar type of hair loss, mainly at the crown. Baldness in women is much more common after the menopause. About 13 in a 100 women have some baldness before the menopause, rising to 75 in a 100 over the age of 65.
What causes male pattern baldness?
Hair is made in hair follicles which are like tiny pouches just under the skin surface. A hair normally grows from each follicle for about three years. It is then shed, and a new hair grows from the follicle. This cycle of hair growth, shedding, and new growth goes on throughout life. The following is thought to occur in men as they gradually become bald:
- Affected hair follicles on the scalp gradually become smaller than normal.
- As the follicle shrinks, each new hair is thinner than the previous one.
- Before falling out, each new hair grows for much less time than the normal three years or so.
- Eventually, all that remains is a much smaller hair follicle and a thin stump of hair that does not grow out to the skin surface.
Male hormones are involved in causing these changes. The level of testosterone, the main male hormone, is normal in men with baldness. Hair follicles convert testosterone into another hormone called dihydrotestosterone. For reasons that are not clear, affected hair follicles become more sensitive to dihydrotestosterone, which causes the hair follicles to shrink. It is also not clear why different hair follicles are affected at different times to make the balding process gradual.
The condition is genetic (hereditary); the location of the gene was identified in 2008.
It is also not clear why only scalp hairs are affected, and not other areas such as the beard or armpits.
Are there any complications from male pattern baldness?
Although male pattern baldness is a common and harmless condition, it can be linked to heart disease. One study compared 45 year old men who had baldness with men of the same age who had a full head of hair. It found that men who had frontal hair loss at the crown were at a slightly increased risk of heart disease (an extra nine for every 100 men with a full head of hair) whilst those who had severe hair loss at the crown had a significant risk of heart disease (an extra 32 for every 100 men with a full head of hair). The risk for men with hair loss at the crown is further increased if they have high cholesterol or a raised blood pressure.
Women with male pattern baldness should be checked for causes of raised male hormone levels, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (a condition in which cysts develop in the ovaries).
What are the treatment options for male pattern baldness?
To become gradually bald is a normal part of the ageing process for most men. No treatment is wanted or needed by most affected men. For some men, baldness can be distressing, particularly if it is excessive or occurs early in life. Treatment may then help.
Currently there are two medicines that help – finasteride (trade name Propecia®) and minoxidil (trade name Regaine®). Neither is available on the NHS, so you need to pay the full price for them.
Finasteride was launched in the UK in 2002, although it has been available in the USA since 1997. It works by blocking the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone. The hair follicles are then not affected by this hormone, and can enlarge back to normal.
Some hair regrowth occurs in about 2 in 3 men who take a finasteride tablet each day. In about 1 in 3 men there is no hair regrowth, but most do not have any further hair loss whilst taking finasteride. It has no effect in about 1 in 100 men. So, if you take finasteride, you have a good chance that hair will regrow, or at least stop any further hair loss.
Some points about finasteride include the following.
- It takes about four months for any effect to be noticed, and up to 1-2 years for full hair growth.
- The balding process returns if treatment is stopped. Therefore, if successful, you need to carry on treatment to maintain the effect.
- Side-effects are uncommon. The most common is that about 2 in 100 treated men report loss of sex drive (libido).
- It does not work in women with male pattern baldness.
- It is expensive, costing around �34 per month (June 2010). You need a private prescription to get it from a pharmacy.
Minoxidil lotion is a rub-on treatment that you can buy at pharmacies without a prescription. It is not clear how it works. The higher-strength solution (5%) is more effective than the 2% strength.
There is debate as to how effective it is. Probably about half of men who use minoxidil delay further balding. About 15 in 100 users have good hair regrowth. There is continued hair loss in about a third of users. However, some reports claim much higher success rates. It seems that it is best used to prevent further hair loss, but hair regrowth occurs in some users.
Some points about minoxidil include the following.
- It needs to be rubbed on the scalp every day.
- It usually takes four months or more for any effect to be noticed.
- Treatment needs to be continued indefinitely. Any new hair that does regrow falls out two months after treatment is stopped.
- It is quite expensive.
- It may work in some women who have male pattern baldness.
- Side-effects are uncommon. For example, skin irritation or a rash sometimes occurs.
A wig is the traditional option for baldness.
Techniques such as hair transplantation, scalp flaps, and other procedures have been used for a number of years. Success rates vary and a specialist opinion is needed if surgery is considered. It is expensive and not available on the NHS.
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