To the Editor:
Female pattern hair loss is common, and the literature suggests that up to 56% of women experience hair thinning in their lifetime, with increased prevalence in older women.1 Pathophysiology is incompletely understood and involves the nonscarring progressive miniaturization of hair follicles, causing decreased production of terminal hairs relative to more delicate vellus hairs. Because vellus hairs have a shorter anagen growth phase than terminal hairs, hair loss is expedited. Androgen excess, when present, hastens the process by inducing early transition of hair follicles from the anagen phase to the senescent telogen phase. Serum testosterone levels are within reference range in most female patients with hair loss, suggesting the presence of additional contributing factors.2
Given the high prevalence of female pattern hair loss and the harm of overlooking androgen excess and an androgen-secreting neoplasm, dermatologists must recognize indications for further evaluation. Additional signs of hyperandrogenism, such as menstrual irregularities, acne, hirsutism, anabolic appearance, voice deepening, and clitoromegaly, are reasons for concern.3 Elevated serum androgen levels also should raise suspicion of malignancy. Historically, a total testosterone level above 200 ng/dL or a dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S) level greater than 700 µg/dL prompted evaluation for a tumor.4 More recent studies show that tumor-induced increases in serum androgen levels are highly variable, challenging the utility of these cutoffs.5
A 70-year-old woman presented with hair loss over the last 12 years with accentuated thinning on the frontal and vertex scalp. The patient’s primary care physician previously made a diagnosis of androgenetic alopecia and recommended topical minoxidil. Although the patient had a history of excess facial and body hair since young adulthood, she noted a progressive increase in the density of chest and back hair, prominent coarsening of the texture of the facial and body hair, and new facial acne in the last 3 years. Prior to these changes, the density and texture of the scalp and body hair had been stable for many years.
Although other postmenopausal females in the patient’s family displayed patterned hair loss, they did not possess coarse and dense hair on the face and trunk. Her family history was notable for ovarian cancer in her mother (in her 70s) and breast cancer in her maternal grandmother (in her 80s).
A review of systems was notable only for decreased energy. Physical examination revealed a well-appearing older woman with coarse terminal hair growth on the cheeks, submental chin, neck, chest, back, and forearms. Scalp examination indicated diffusely decreased hair density, most marked over the vertex, crown, and frontal scalp, without scale, erythema, or loss of follicular ostia (Figure 1).
Laboratory evaluation revealed elevated levels of total testosterone (106 ng/dL [reference range, <40 ng/dL]) and free testosterone (32.9 pg/mL [reference range, 1.8–10.4 pg/mL]) but a DHEA-S level within reference range, suggesting an ovarian source of androgen excess. The CA-125 level was elevated (89 U/mL [reference range, <39 U/mL]).