Everybody’s seen an elderly person whose nose and ears look thismuch too big for his head. In fact, what elderly person doesn’t look that way? (Just joking, elderly people!) This observation has led many to the seemingly logical conclusion that since these people’s noses and ears couldn’t have always looked so darn huge, they must have grown bigger over the years. It’s now become part of the conventional medical folklore that a person’s ears and nose continue to grow throughout his or her lifetime, eventually resulting in ears as big as handlebars and a schnoz you could land a plane on.
But not so fast. Just because your grandpa’s got a big ol’ honker and ears (the hair inside of which he trims every day with the clippers you got him for Christmas) doesn’t mean that his body has somehow mustered up unending resources to devote to these two cartilaginous protuberances. Continually growing appendages may seem like a medical miracle, but the truth is far more mundane.
The Straight Talk
It’s not true. Not even a little bit. No matter what you might read on popular question-and-answer Web sites, this one is pure hooey.
If you stop to think about it, the myth doesn’t even make much sense—in old age, our bodies start conserving their resources for the most vital functions; hair thins, skin wrinkles, and vision blurs, all in an effort to keep the brain firing and the heart beating. Why would the body expend its precious energy to grow two nonessential parts?
The origin of this bit of folklore may have come from—of all places—sharks. A shark’s body is made mostly of cartilage, which keeps growing larger throughout the animal’s lifetime. Since human noses and ears are also made of cartilage, someone once thought it made sense that human cartilage must also grow forever. But human bodies actually work quite a bit differently than sharks’ bodies, if you can imagine. Human cartilage stops growing after adulthood. If it didn’t, we would expect to grow giant protuberances on other areas of our bodies where large concentrations of cartilage exist, like our knees, shoulders, ankles, and sternums. As a matter of fact, even sharks don’t grow forever; their growth slows down considerably as they reach old age—just another example of an elderly body conserving its resources.
Humans’ propensity toward confirmation bias (seeing only evidence that backs up what we already believe) leads us to think that this myth must be true since so many old people have big noses and ears,, but it actually only seems that way. The reason they appear so large is that as we age, our skin produces less collagen and loses elasticity, and when you throw the forces of gravity into the mix, what you get is sagging. Our earlobes and the tips of our noses stretch and droop, just like everything on the body not being held up by bone.
Coupled with the fact that the skin all over the face is losing fat and collagen (and thus plumpness and shape), and that the hair is probably thinning and receding, the ears and nose sometimes start to look a lot bigger in comparison with the rest of an elderly person’s features. Then again, sometimes they don’t—depending on genetics and skin care choices, some older people don’t have especially droopy skin, and therefore their ears and nose look perfectly normal throughout their lives.
There’s one more growth-related myth that pops up in discussions of our miraculous “growing” ears and nose: the myth that our fingernails and hair keep growing after we’re dead. This myth is also untrue. Once a person is dead, her cells cease functioning—end of story. However, if you look at a body that has been dead awhile, its hair and nails sometimes seem longer because the skin around them starts decomposing and pulling away from the body.
Whatever happens to your nose or your ears in old age will be the result of gravity, because this one is 100 percent false.
Say What? is a series created to support or debunk common health myths. If you have a question, please send it to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org