Going bald is an experience. First, you pretend it’s not happening. Then, it becomes obvious to everyone, and you take pains to try and hide it where possible. Finally, you embrace the hairlessness and just hope that you have a reasonably nice-shaped head.
But as A Baldy, the news in the last few weeks has been very worrying. Recently, news headlines have been popping up about a terrifying idea — apparently, studies have shown that bald people are more likely to suffer severe disease from COVID-19 and even die than our hairier counterparts.
As someone who is cursed with a shiny head, this is a pretty big worry. On top of sunburn in winter, I now have to be stressed about dying from COVID-19 as well?
Fortunately, the research doesn’t really show anything of the sort.
It turns out that there’s not much reason to think that baldness is itself a problem with COVID-19 at all.
Most of these headlines are reporting on two recent studies that have looked at men and women hospitalized with COVID-19 and their hair. Both studies found that people who had hair loss were more likely to suffer serious consequences from the disease than people who had more hair.
Thus, the terrifying headlines, and the ongoing fear for baldies like me.
Except, there’s a problem. A massive, very obvious, entirely foreseeable issue. You see, neither of these studies controlled for age. Now, I’ve written about confounding and how it works before, and it can be complex stuff, but it doesn’t take an epidemiological mastermind to figure out that older people are both more likely to be bald and more likely to die from COVID-19. Therefore, if you don’t account for age when you compare baldies with the normally haired, it’s impossible to tell if baldness is causing an increased risk of death from COVID-19 or if the bald people are just older and therefore more likely to die.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s first-semester epidemiology stuff, which makes both of these studies largely worthless to infer anything about baldness and COVID-19.
There were, of course, other issues with this research. The papers were very small — 41 patients and 175 patients — and didn’t have control groups. They also didn’t control for anything aside from age either, which is a problem because we know that things like genetics and environment can effect your risk of both death and baldness.
Overall, it’s hard to take much away from these studies at all, never mind any useful information about baldness and risk of coronavirus death.
So, currently we have no idea whether baldness could impact your risk from COVID-19, but why are people asking the question anyway? This actually goes back to hormones — the basic idea is that higher levels of certain hormones may influence your likelihood of both getting COVID-19 and dying from the disease. There’s some early, fairly speculative, evidence that makes this idea not entirely unreasonable, although it’s worth noting that this evidence is very preliminary at this point.
There’s also evidence that baldness may be linked to levels of these same hormones. If the hormones can potentially make your head bald and make you more likely to die from COVID-19, then looking at baldness might give us some insight into this risk.
The thing is, this is all very tenuous. None of these relationships are solid, and the research into baldness and COVID-19 is, at best, meager. There’s no realistic possibility that you could really make any causal claims about COVID-19 and hair loss, because we simply don’t know enough about the topic to say much of anything yet.
Like many stories during the coronavirus pandemic, this is one of sensationalism. There’s minimal research into the issue, and any actual scientists would be incredibly cautious about making claims, but that’s not what you see in the headlines. At this point, it’s far too early to make any statements, which means that perhaps unsurprisingly the headlines were wrong.
If you’re bald like me, don’t believe the headlines.
Hair loss probably isn’t going to kill you (as long as you wear a hat and/or sunscreen).