11 February 2017

Bolang Bilog and the Genetics of Baldness

Image credit:  The DVDshow.com.

Back in the day, irreverent as my mother could be, she used to entertain the entire family with tales of how she fell, as she put it, for the “matandang kalbo” (bald old man) – meaning my father. My mother was only six years younger than my father, so there. Like I said, irreverent.

My father was very touchy about his baldness. He grew the hair along one side of his head long enough so he could sweep it over the bald top; and not that the hair ever covered it. He would also lock himself in the room to paint his head with this black stick, something that my mother could not stop deriding. Behind his back, of course.

To us his children, the baldness was just something we took as a matter of course. He was already bald when he got married to my mother, so none of us really knew him to be anything but. I, for one, could not imagine how he would have looked like with a complete set of hair.

But there was this time when my nephew Rikko, who could not have been more than ten at the time, was vacationing with us. To this day, my niece Apples still loves to tell the story of when Rikko stood himself behind my father, who was sitting on the sofa, and started spinning his palms over my father’s head, all the while chanting, “bolang bilog… bolang bilog…” (round ball)

He got chased out of the house by my father.

Almost three decades later and Rikko is now the proud father of three young boys. And yes, karma is, indeed, unforgiving. He shaves his head these days to hide the fact that the hair has receded exactly as his grandfather’s “crystal ball” had all those years back. Of course, his baldness is really less due to karma and more to genetics.

An article on the web site USNews, written by Angela Haupt, claims that nearly two out of three men will become bald by the time they become 60.1 Among the three boys in my family, I was fortunate to have been gifted with the thickest mane. But because not just my Dad by also my maternal grandfather were bald, all these years I was secretly dreading going the same way sometime in the future. As Haupt wrote in the same article, “most men don’t part with their hair willingly.”

This loss of hair among many men is scientifically called androgenetic alopecia or male pattern baldness. My life-long fear of going the same route as my father and maternal grandfather is fully justified. There is clear evidence that baldness is in many cases an inherited condition. The genetics of baldness, however, is not entirely understood as yet by scientists.2

There used to be a misconception that baldness could only be inherited from the mother. This was because one of the genes identified to be among the reasons for the condition could be found in the X chromosome, which the mother supplies during conception. In my case, it gave me a bit of comfort to know that none of my uncles on the mother side had gone bald.

However, scientists have recently learned that a gene within Chromosome 20 may be the reason why some males appear to inherit their male pattern baldness from their fathers. Exactly how this gene behaves, however, continues to be a mystery to scientists, or so wrote Ian Sample in The Guardian UK.3

Although 80% of male pattern baldness can be attributed to genetics, it can also be caused by other factors such as iron deficiency, an underactive thyroid, stress and scalp infections. Baldness, Sample further wrote, “is a major cause of depression, social shyness and stigma for some people, particularly those who go bald in their early years.”

Small wonder my own father was so touchy about his baldness, just in case anyone is wondering why a grandfather would go ballistic and chase after a grandchild who played with his head as though it was a crystal ball.

It is estimated that American males spend an average of US$ 1 Billion annually to keep from going bald. This despite the fact that there is no known cure as yet for the condition. A couple of treatments are known to be encouraging, but each comes at a cost.

According to Susan Scurti in the Medical Daily, propecia or finasteride works best in the early days of hair loss by reducing hormonal levels. On the downside, it also reduces the libido. Rogaine or minoxidil, meanwhile, is a topical treatment that can be applied directly on the scalp. It slows the rate of hair loss but can also cause skin irritation.4

Just who among the boys in a family eventually gets the gene that causes male pattern baldness is almost something of a lottery. You just never know until the hair starts to fall off. Until scientists find a way to stave off the condition, this is one lottery men the world over will continue to dread ever winning.

Notes and references:
1 “What Causes Hair Loss? 9 Myths about Baldness,” by Angela Haupt, online at USNews.
2 “The Unpredictable Genetics of Male-Pattern Baldness,” by Quora, online at Forbes Tech section.
3 “Scientists uncover new gene link to male pattern baldness,” by Ian Sample, online at The Guardian.
4 “Going Bald Isn't Your Mother's Fault; Maternal Genetics Are Not To Blame,” by Susan Scurti, online at Medical Daily.

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