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Do our ears grow longer with age?

Asked by Judith Berry of Staffordshire, United Kingdom

As we see others age or as we see ourselves age, we often notice that ears appear to get longer in middle and old age. But do they really?

The scientific validity of this common observation has been challenged from time to time by those who maintain that ears don't really grow longer (or larger) with age - they only look as if they do - that it's all just an illusion.

They point out that since the body shrinks somewhat with age, the ears may appear to have grown longer (and larger) while actually staying the same size. So what does science say? In fact, our ears do grow longer with age. Indeed, they grow throughout our lives.

In 1990, Drs L Pelz and B Stein from Medical Branch of the University of Rostock in Germany measured the ears of 1,271 children and adolescents. They report in Padiatrie und Grenzgebiete that ear length increases "steadily and annually", but ear width remains the same.

Dr James Heathcote, a general practitioner from Kent in the UK, along with four colleagues, studied 206 patients with the mean age of 53. Dr Heathcote concluded in the 23 December 1995 British Medical Journal, that "as we get older our ears get bigger (on average by 0.22mm a year)".

The next year, in the 2 March British Medical Journal, Dr Yashhiro Asai, a physician at the Futanazu Clinic in Misaki, Japan, along with three colleagues, agreed with Heathcote. Their study of 400 consecutive patients aged 20 and older concludes "that ear length correlates significantly with age, as Heathcote showed, in Japanese people".

In 1999, Dr VF Ferrario and four colleagues from the Functional Anatomy Research Centre at the University of Milan in Italy, writing in the Journal of Craniofacial Genetic Developmental Biology, present evidence that not only do ears get longer with age, but it happens to both women and men. Men’s ears start out longer than women's and they stay that way.

Why ears grow longer with age? Gravity over time forces every body appendage to sag. The bane of human aging: If it can sag, it will sag! Ears included.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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