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December 21, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Studies Show Redheads More Susceptible to Certain Diseases

By Jeany Miller More Blogs by This Author

My sister is a redhead (strawberry blonde). If I had to describe her personality with one word, I would use vivacious. She knows how to hold a conversation, she loves being at the center of the action, and people enjoying being with her because she’s fun and funny. But science suggests my sister may be much more than meets the eye, including susceptible to diseases like skin cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Red Hair and Skin Cancer

Approximately 132,000 cases of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and two to three million non-melanoma cancers are diagnosed each year, according to the World Health Organization. These numbers, however, continue to rise annually. To keep yourself safe, undergo frequent dermatological skin checks and avoid sun exposure.

A 2012 study reveals people with pale skin and red hair may be more prone to developing a deadly form of skin cancer, whether they spend time in the sun or not. Not only is this group more vulnerable to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, but a study in mice has now shown the pigment that gives hair a red hue may, in itself, have cancer-causing properties. Specifically, the red pigment in “redheaded” mice showed capable of promoting melanoma formation, even in the absence of ultraviolet radiation exposure. This suggests that melanoma does not necessarily develop in redheads because of weak protection from sunlight and ultraviolet radiation exposure, but instead because red pigment can damage healthy cells.

Red Hair and Pain Tolerance

Redheads also feel more pain than their blonde and brunette counterparts according to a series of studies on people with red hair compiled in 2011. A true redhead produces an abundance of yellow-red pigment called pheomelanin, which is the result of mutations in the MC1R.3 gene. Redheads have two copies of this variant gene – one from each parent – that is involved with both the development of melanoma and the body’s perception of pain. Edwin Liem, an anesthesiologist at the University of Louisville, suspects when both copies of the MC1R.3 are variants, as they are in redheads, receptors in the nervous system modulate pain more intensely. It’s also possible, according to Liem, that the redhead version of the MC1R gene directly affects hormones that stimulate the brain’s pain receptors.

In one study, Liem and his colleagues compared the pain tolerance of 60 naturally red-haired volunteers with 60 brunettes. The redheads reported feeling a chilling pain at around 6 degrees C, whereas brunettes did not feel an aching chill until the temperature approached freezing. In another experiment, also led by Liem, women with various hair colors were exposed to electric shock. The redheads needed about 20 percent more anesthetic to relieve the pain than non-redheads.

Red Hair and Parkinson's Disease

A Harvard study released in 2010 found that redheads have a nearly 90 percent greater chance of developing Parkinson’s disease. The same MC1R gene mutation may be responsible because it influences another type of gene that, when also mutated, can be associated with Parkinson’s. On the plus side, research shows that folic acid might delay the progression of the illness. Researchers advise taking 400 micrograms a day, and a multivitamin has all the folic acid that most women need.


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