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Legend has it that stress caused Marie Antoinette’s hair to turn white the night before she took that fateful march to the guillotine in Paris in 1793. 

Actually, hair turns gray when stem cells that produce pigment are depleted and stop doing their job. Today’s scientists dispute the notion that stress can turn hair gray overnight, but the jury’s still out about the definitive causes of graying hair. Some scientists say that consistent mental and physical stress—over the course of many years—may cause premature aging of the body, including hair. Others argue that genes determine when an individual goes gray. 

A 2009 study of lab mice, published in the science journal Cell, suggests yet another culprit: the cumulative effect of stress at the cellular level. Researchers theorize that the accumulation of DNA damage in cells may be an engine in aging, prompted by “unavoidable” damaging agents such as ultraviolet light, ionizing radiation and chemicals.