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Is Being Bald a Clue to Cancer?

Male pattern baldness in midlife may illuminate prostate risks

For men in midlife, the hair on their head (or lack thereof) may offer clues to their health.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, male pattern baldness at age 45 is associated with a 40 percent increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer.

Specifically, men who had moderate balding at the front and the crown of their heads were at highest risk. The study found no significant link between other baldness patterns and risk of prostate cancer.

(MORE: Male Baldness: How Women Really Feel About a Bald Head)

The research showed an increased risk “for aggressive prostate cancer only in men with a very specific pattern of hair loss, baldness at the front and moderate hair-thinning on the crown of the head, at the age of 45,” says one of the study authors, Michael B. Cook, investigator in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Yet he cautions against jumping to conclusions. "While our data show a strong possibility for a link between the development of baldness and aggressive prostate cancer, it's too soon to apply these findings to patient care," says Cook.

(MORE: What a New Prostate Cancer Study Means for Men)

Researchers looked at balding patterns and prostate cancer risk in a group of 39,070 men aged 55 to 74. The team identified 1,138 prostate cancer diagnoses, of which 51 percent were aggressive. The mean age at the time of diagnosis was 72. Men with this specific pattern of baldness (at the front and moderate at the crown) were 40 percent more likely to develop aggressive prostate cancer.

Progressive, patterned hair loss and prostate cancer have both been linked to increased levels of androgens (one of the male sex hormones) and androgen receptors. “The central hypothesis linking these two conditions is higher levels of endogenous androgens,” says Cook.

Researchers don’t yet fully understand the causes of different patterns, extents and ages of male pattern baldness and how, specifically, they relate to prostate cancer. More studies are needed to “unravel these complex mechanisms,” says Cook. 

In the absence of this additional research (and because studies examining the connection between male pattern baldness and prostate cancer can be hard to compare due to a variety of hard-to-control-for factors), Cook says that men in midlife with this distinct pattern of thinning hair shouldn’t panic.

“It’s conceivable that, in the future, male pattern baldness may play a small role in estimating risk of prostate cancer and may contribute to patient-doctor discussions about whether to opt for prostate cancer screening,” says Cook. “At this time, however, these results should be interpreted in a conservative fashion. Men with any pattern of male pattern baldness at age 45 years should not be additionally concerned about their individual risk of prostate cancer.”

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