Ask Dr. H: Ears do get bigger as people age

Posted: June 20, 2011

Question: I've noticed that ears seem to get bigger with age. Is that true, and if so, why might that be so?

Answer: It's not your imagination. Ears do get bigger with age. Not only does the cartilage in the ear continue to grow lengthwise (but not with increasing width) throughout our lifetime, but the earlobe elongates and sags due to years of gravity.

A British study published Dec. 23, 1995, in the British Medical Journal studied 206 patients over time and found that their ears elongate by 0.22 millimeter per year. Another study determined that the average ear length is 2.04 inches at birth, and 3.07 inches in length in men at age 70 and 2.83 inches in length in women at age 70. In fact, detailed stats on ear sizes have been used by forensic researchers to determine an unknown person's approximate age. Nobody really knows the exact reason why ear cartilage continues to grow throughout our lifetime.

Another odd fact is that your nose also gets longer with advancing age due to the effects of gravity. Sagging is an inevitable, annoying part of aging.

Nerves can cause brief spikes in blood pressure

Q: My blood pressure is usually normal (129/76 this morning), but it spikes when I'm under stress, worried or in pain. Two days ago when I went to a clinic for severe foot pain, my pressure was 176/104. My doctor assures me that blood pressure spiking under stress or pain is normal and doesn't need to be treated. What is the up-to-date thinking on this subject?

A: If your blood pressure is elevated for sustained periods on a daily basis, it should be treated. A sudden rise in blood pressure because of acute pain, anxiety, or strenuous physical exertion isn't hypertension, as long as it rapidly returns to normal.

In the doctor's office, we see these rises in blood pressure in folks who are nervous or rushed. It's called "white coat syndrome," in reference to the doctor's white coat. I find that giving patients a "friendly" magazine to read for a few minutes can distract and relax them enough to bring the pressure down to its baseline. Keep in mind that folks with white coat syndrome may still have underlying high blood pressure.

What should your blood pressure be? According to the American Heart Association, the upper "systolic" number should ideally be less than 120 (120-139 is borderline high; 140 or higher is high); the lower "diastolic" number should be less than 80 (80-89 is borderline high; 90 or higher is high).

I'd recommend that you monitor your blood pressure outside the doctor's office: At home and at work, when you're stressed, and when you're relaxed. Keep a diary of the time, your state of mind, and your activity. If you're only checking your blood pressure when you've just awakened, or after supper when relaxing on your sofa, you're not getting an accurate depiction of your blood pressure. Bring both the readings and your home monitor to your next office visit to see if your machine correlates with the reading your doctor gets. That'll help you and your doctor determine if you've got hypertension.

Mitchell Hecht is a physician specializing in internal medicine. Send questions to him at: "Ask Dr. H.," Box 767787, Atlanta, Ga. 30076. Due to the large volume of mail received, personal replies are not possible.

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