I've heard all the jokes; now I want some facts. I'm in my mid-60s and partially bald. I can barely keep ahead of trimming the hair growing in my nose and ears. What gives? --Ernest Hobbs, Columbus, Ohio
This problem, which is common among men as they age, is a manifestation of the law of conservation of hair. When you were young the manly fluid filled your whole being, but as you got older a lot of it boiled off. By now it doesn't even reach the bottom of the old brainpan. The sad result is that hair grows in your nose and ears rather than on top of your head. The plus side is that you can now watch Pocahontas with the grandkids without thinking, "Whoa, nice rack."
Unfortunately, that's about it for definitive statements on this subject. I note that my friend David Feldman frittered away parts of two of his Imponderables books before concluding that not much was known about this. His findings:
(1) Excessive hair is called hypertrichosis.
(2) Hairy ears are an inherited trait that some geneticists believed was passed along on the Y (male) chromosomes.
(3) They don't believe this anymore.
(4) In 1984 two doctors in Mineola, New York, announced that hair in the ear canal plus a crease in the ear lobe were signs that you were susceptible to heart attack (strictly speaking, that you had coronary-artery disease, i.e., narrowing of the coronary arteries).
(5) In 1985, having been accused of misconstruing the data big time, the doctors conceded that hairy, creased ears were pretty useless as a predictor of heart attack.
Actually, Dave touched only lightly on item five, but I figured I'd better clarify the lack of clarity on this point.
Having further reviewed the medical literature, I can add the following to the above:
(1) Even less is known about hairy noses than hairy ears.
(2) In men hairy ears are probably pretty common. In the Mineola study 74 percent of the men had them. Unfortunately you can't tell how old they were because the only average age provided applied to a group of men and women mixed together. Obviously a little more time needs to be spent on statistics in the medical schools serving Mineola.
(3) It sure is hard to figure out what medical authors are talking about when they use words like "tragus" and "pinna" without telling you what they mean.
(4) The tragus is the pointy projection on the front side of your ear opening. Interestingly, tragus can also mean any of the hairs growing at the entrance to the ear. So I guess what you've got there, Ernest, is a bad case of tragus on the tragus.
(5) The pinna, according to the dictionary, is the "external part of the ear," but some medical authors figure it really means the external part of the ear except the tragus.
(6) I bet hair on the tragus is what's really important, but maybe that's just because I have it.
(7) Some people think men in certain ethnic groups, such as those found in parts of India and Sri Lanka, have hairier ears than usual.
However, you couldn't prove it by me, inasmuch as the admittedly sparse literature on the subject suggests that hairy ears are pretty common all over. In any case, the Indian researchers think if you've got them you might have diabetes too.
(8) You can get hairy ears as a result of using minoxidil, and boy, does it look gross.
(9) While not having hairy, creased ears doesn't necessarily mean you aren't prone to heart attacks, if you do have them--and if in other respects you seem like the heart-attack-prone type--you're in trouble. Ninety percent of the guys with hairy, creased ears in the Mineola study had coronary-artery disease.
(10) I sure wish the people who published the relatively small number of ear-hair papers had had their acts a little more together, because it's just about impossible to determine from their work whether ear hair becomes more common in men as they age and if so, where on the ear and with what indications for your health. But it's not like counting ear hairs is a job that's going to attract the great minds of our times.
(11) Some great mind is going to have to do a lot of this work over if we're going to come to any firm conclusions about ear and nose hair.
(12) But it's not going to be me.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.