There is an epidemic sweeping the University of Chicago campus.
An insidious disease is afflicting dozens of young, cheery male students, endangering to their social lives and senses of well being: premature baldness.
According to an informal survey of 100 male students conducted in the Burton-Judson dining hall on November 20, six percent of students showed clear signs of hair loss.
While this number may seem somewhat small on its face, cases of premature balding, also known as androgenetic alopecia, seem to be much more prevalent at the University than elsewhere, according to Mike Bayers, who cuts hair at the University Barbershop at 57th Street and Harper Avenue. "I see a lot of young guys who are going bald; it's a real shame," he said.
Bayers estimates that about 10 percent of his under-25 clientele is showing signs of hair loss; his partner, Anthony Franco, believes that the number of Chicago students losing their hair could range as high as 15 to 20 percent, and that premature baldness could affect more students at Chicago than at other campuses because of the high degree of anxiety Chicago students are renowned for experiencing.
"I think stress plays a part of it; it affects you internally," said Franco.
Stress may be a cause of premature balding, but those who experience balding often find themselves experiencing a great deal more stress. James, a third-year who asked that his real name be withheld because of embarrassment, said he has just begun to experience the beginnings of the disease. "It's horrible," he said. "I'm only 20 and now I'm going to start looking like an old man."
James said he is especially concerned by his hair loss because of the negative stereotype baldness carries. He said that images of balding people in the media have caused him great anxiety about his ability to make friends or get dates in the future.
Bayers, however, said that premature balding can be a blessing in disguise. "I think the guys who are hit with premature balding have it a little easier," he said. "They can get a buzz cut or wear it short, and it can be a fashion statement.
"Especially nowadays, with the guys shaving their heads, it's kind of chic to be bald," he said. "Go back 10 or 15 years ago, it wasn't as accepted."
The causes of premature baldness, which can cause some men to go bald sometimes as young as the late teens or early 20s, have perplexed researchers for years.
Some experts believe that the cause of hair loss could constitute one of life's bitter ironies: while testosterone initiates hair growth in men, it could contribute to baldness. When combined with DHT, a hormone derived from testosterone, follicles are inhibited from producing hair skin on the forehead and upper scalp, according to Elaine Fuchs, formerly of the University, who currently teaches at the Rockefeller University in New York City.
Most experts agree that the gene for premature balding can be inherited from either parent, and that balding is linked to the buildup of DHT. However, several traditional beliefs have recently been questioned. Having a maternal grandfather who experienced paternal baldness does not necessarily correlate to a grandson having the condition, and diet, climate, and race have little influence, according to Fuchs.
Although scientists have discovered no cure for premature balding, several remedies have been shown to prolong the life of hair. Treatments like Rogaine or Propecia have been purported to slow hair loss in up to 90 percent of users. But Bayers, Franco, and fellow barber Muharrem "Mitch" Mutluguler, remain skeptical, saying that no treatment is effective in stopping or reversing hair loss.
"If you show me one person in the entire world who is balding and then uses one of these things and comes back with more hair, I'll pay you $1,000," Mutluguler said.
"No one has ever sat in my chair and said that they have more hair from whatever. I've never seen that," Bayers said.
Rather than relying on these well-known products or other supposed miracle cures sold widely over the internet, such as a laser comb, "hair fattener," and other non-FDA approved topicals, Mutluguler suggested that the best course of action, aside from hair transplant surgery, is to keep the hair cropped short and massage the scalp to stimulate the follicle.
"If you keep it long and greasy, you have no choiceyou're going to lose what you have left," he said. "The more oil you have in your hair, the weaker the root. You have to keep it short and close."
Bayers said that people experiencing premature balding need to wear their remaining hair short and neat, and that balding people who wear their hair long and "gross" are asking for trouble. "We don't even want to talk about comb-overs," he said. "Younger people don't get the comb-overs, that's an older guy's hairstyle."
Fuchs agreed with Mutluguler's assessment, and said that in the short term, keeping the follicle relatively free of oil and DHT will help to preserve remaining strands of hair. Recent research she has conducted, however, has suggested that a molecule called beta-catenin and its partner proteins may help to signal embryonic cells to become living hair follicles.
"This is exciting because current treatments for baldness only work if there are living follicles left, or if the patient undergoes hair transplant surgery. Our research shows that new follicles can be created from adult skin cells if certain molecular players are induced to act," she said.
Such developments are encouraging to people like James, who are worried about their future prospects without hair. "I don't want to be another George Costanza," said James.
And hopefullyif James takes care of his hair and Fuchs' research materializeshe won't be.