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Senior Correspondent

Q. Do your ears hang low? Do they wobble to and fro? Can you tie them in a knot? Can you tie them in a bow? Can you throw them o’er your shoulder like a continental soldier? Do your ears hang low?

The real question I was asked was: Why do old men have big ears? I just couldn’t resist starting out with the well-worn ditty.

Well, it turns out that old men — and women — have bigger ears than they had as young adults. In short, your ears grow larger as you age. I know this sounds like a myth, but it’s been proven by scientific studies. Examples:

  • Researchers at the VA Medical Center/Texas Tech University found that ear circumference increases an average of 0.51 millimeters per year.

“This study,” the Texas scientists reported, “supports the view that as people age, their ears get larger, particularly the ear circumference, which increases on average 0.51 mm per year. This enlargement is likely associated with aging changes of collagen. The knowledge from this study allows us to calculate the age of an individual based on ear size: Subject's age = 1.96 x (Ear circumference in millimeters − 88.1).”

[The researchers were not clear about how the "circumference" was measured. They didn't use the complete outer ear to determine this measurement, so don't get out your tape measure to check this.]

(Definition: Collagen is the fibrous protein part of bone, cartilage, tendon, and other connective tissue. It is converted into gelatin by boiling.)

  • Physicians at the Royal College of General Practitioners in England measured their patients’ ears. They found that, as we get older, our ears grow about 0.22 mm a year.

“A chance observation—that older people have bigger ears—was at first controversial, but has been shown to be true,” Dr. James A. Heathcote reported. “For the researchers, the experience of involving patients in business beyond their presenting symptoms proved to be a positive one, and it was rewarding to find a clear result. Why ears should get bigger when the rest of the body stops growing is not answered by this research. Nor did we consider whether this change in a particular part of the anatomy is a marker of something less easily measurable elsewhere or throughout the body.”

  • Dr Yashhiro Asai, a physician at the Futanazu Clinic in Misaki, Japan, along with three colleagues, agreed with the British analysis. Their study of 400 consecutive patients aged 20 and older concluded that “ear length correlates significantly with age, as Heathcote showed, in Japanese people.”
  • A computer analysis at the University of Milan documented how facial structures change as people age. Ears, the researchers found, get larger with age. Dr V.F. Ferrario and four colleagues from the Functional Anatomy Research Centre at the university presented evidence that not only do ears get longer with age, but this phenomenon applies to both women and men.
  • Doctors from the Medical Branch of the University of Rostock in Germany measured the ears of 1,271 children and adolescents. They reported that ear length increases “steadily and annually,” but ear width remains the same.

So, there is strong evidence about geezer ear growth. The cause of the enlargement is still a subject of debate in the scientific community. There are many theories. My personal favorite is that skin loses elasticity as we age. This tendency and gravity make ears get longer and wobble to and fro.

Kay-Tee Khaw, a professor of clinical gerontology, said it may be that “big ears predict survival. Men with smaller ears may die selectively at younger ages. Ear size or pattern, or both, may be a marker of some biological process related to health.”

While this may sound far-fetched, many studies have shown that men with a diagonal crease in both ear lobes may have an increased risk of heart attacks.

If you would like to read more columns, you can order a copy of “How to be a Healthy Geezer” at www.healthygeezer.com

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