Earlobe Creases as a Sign of Heart Disease

More reason to fixate on aging and our every physical imperfection

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An AP story this morning has us concerned that people who look old for their age are at higher risk of heart disease. Various headlines: "Looking Old May Be a Sign of Heart Risks"; "Looking Old May Be a Sign of Heart Disease"; "Looking Old? It Could Be Heart Disease"; "Visible Aging Signs May Predict Heart Disease." Fascinating; for real, though?

Dr. Anne Tybjaerg-Hansen presented research at an American Heart Association conference yesterday in which researchers at the University of Copenhagen correlated 11,000 Danish people's appearances with their incidence of heart disease. The stories are based on that.

"The visible signs of aging reflect physiologic or biologic age and are independent of chronologic age," she said -- which is a super engaging proposition. The age-is-just-a-number theory takes us from college bars to Zuckerberg to Sandusky, and now to cardiovascular risk factors. Appraising someone's heart just by looking at them would be cost-effective and great, for doctors and discerning suitors alike.

SHARK300200.jpgEarlobe crease

But, but; but -- the physical characteristics that correlated with heart disease in this study were few: 

  • Baldness/receding hairline
  • Bumpy cholesterol deposits around the eyes
  • Earlobe creases

Things like gray hair and wrinkles, meanwhile, didn't correlate with heart disease. And those are definitely closer to the top of most people's Family Feud surveys on what we consider Signs of Old Age.

So, to the correlations:

1. Receding hairline correlated with heart disease. That could be related to testosterone levels, or the undue stresses of going bald in 2012.

SHARK300200.jpgXanthelasma

2. Bumpy cholesterol deposits around the eyes -- Not a normal sign of aging. It's called xanthelasma, and it often means high cholesterol. An association with cardiovascular disease makes sense.

3. Earlobe creases -- Fascinating and not intuitive, but also not a mainstream sign of aging. "Oh how time -- brutal time -- has ravaged your once-beautiful earlobes." When they're not inherited, they're felt to be related to collapse of blood vessels to the ear lobe, so, indicative of vascular disease. And the association with heart disease isn't new at all. See this paper from 1989.

Bottom line, if you look old, don't freak out because of these headlines. If you have cholesterol lumps visibly accumulating under your eyes, get your cholesterol checked.


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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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