As human beings age, it’s only natural for their bodies to go through changes. While some transformations like graying hair and wrinkling skin are obvious to the naked eye, other shifts happen so subtly they’re barely perceptible. You may be surprised to discover that two parts of the body never cease growing, gradually enlarging as the years go by: the nose and ears. This slow but steady expansion continues well into old age.
Though the incremental changes are imperceptible from one year to the next, the cumulative effect over decades is striking. Photos of celebrities like Robert De Niro neatly illustrate this phenomenon. Comparing De Niro’s early acting headshots to recent red carpet images reveals a markedly larger nose and ears. As the skin around his facial features has gone slack with age, these two body parts remain defiantly pronounced.
The growth spurts of the nose and ears are unique amongst body parts. While the rest of the face sags and wrinkles over time, the nose and ears continue reaching for new dimensions. There are several theories as to why these particular organs expand so persistently as humans enter their later decades. Some experts cite the cartilaginous makeup of the nose and ears, which may lead to gradual lengthening over a lifetime. Others believe it may simply be a genetically predisposed trait. Regardless of the cause, witnessing the expanding nose and ears on an aging familiar face can serve as a sobering reminder of the passage of time.
Though subtle at first, over decades the changes are unmistakable. Keep reading to learn more about why these two facial features continue their defiant growth cycle throughout our lives.
The Body Parts that Never Stop Growing
Have you ever closely examined photos of yourself at different ages and noticed something peculiar about your nose and ears? If not, take a close look next time. These two facial features obey a different set of rules than the rest of our bodies. While our hair may gray and skin becomes lined with age, our noses and ears defiantly continue to grow.
This phenomenon is best illustrated by comparing celebrity photos over time. Robert De Niro provides a prime example. Images from his early film career show a man with a sharper, more compact facial profile. But in recent photos, his nose appears more protrusive and ears stick out a bit further from his head. The changes are subtle, but striking when observed over decades. What causes this lifelong growth cycle that’s unique to the nose and ears?
Unexpected Changes With Age
Hair – While hair color commonly turns gray or white, hair can also darken with age in some individuals. The texture may change too, becoming coarser or more unruly.
Voice – Voices often get higher pitched in old age due to stiffening of vocal cords. The elderly also speak slower, with more hesitations and pauses.
Skin – Skin tags and age spots often appear in senior years. Skin can also bruise more easily due to thinner epidermal layers.
Senses – Hearing worsens, especially with high frequencies. Sense of smell diminishes due to fewer olfactory nerve cells. Pain sensation decreases due to neural changes.
Nails – Fingernails and toenails tend to get thicker, more brittle and grow more slowly with old age. The nails can also develop vertical ridges.
Weight – While many think of weight loss with aging, studies show obesity rates actually peak around ages 60-69 then decline in the 70s and 80s.
Hair growth – Hair on the head decreases but unwelcome hair may sprout in the nose and ears due to hormonal shifts.
Sleep patterns – Older adults tend to go to bed earlier, wake up earlier, nap more during the day and experience more nighttime awakenings.
These subtle age-related shifts remind us that growing older involves more than just wrinkles and graying hair! Our entire bodies slowly morph in unexpected ways over the decades.
The Science Behind the Phenomenon
The nose and ears are composed partly of cartilage, which is different from other tissues in the body. Cartilage is a flexible, structural material made up of a protein called collagen and other fibers like elastin.
Unlike other tissues, cartilage continues to grow and regenerate throughout life. This is driven by the presence of cartilage cell progenitors that can divide and produce new cartilage cells. As we age, our noses and ears gradually enlarge due to this ongoing cell division and addition of new cartilage.
Scientists have identified certain growth factors that are involved in cartilage cell proliferation, especially insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Levels of growth hormones like IGF-1 decline with age, but the cartilage in the nose and ears remains sensitive to these hormones even into old age. This allows continued gradual cartilage expansion over time.
The collagen and elastin fibers that provide the structure of cartilage also degrade more slowly compared to other tissues. This means the framework of the nose and ears changes minimally over time, allowing enlargement without much sagging or drooping.
Gravity may also play a role. Over decades, the weight of the nose pulls it downward, resulting in elongation of the nasal tip. Earrings may stretch earlobes. However, cartilage growth seems to be the primary reason for this lifelong enlargement phenomenon.
The unique regenerative abilities and slow breakdown of cartilage allows the nose and ears to defiantly grow through all stages of life when most other body parts have ceased development. This quirk reveals the complex and intriguing workings of the human body.
Other Unexpected Changes With Age
While the nose and ears grow larger, other body parts experience changes that aren’t so obvious. For example, as we age, the lenses in our eyes gradually yellow and stiffen, leading to cloudy vision and presbyopia. The number of taste buds on our tongues actually decreases over time, making food and drink seem less flavorful in later decades. Bones lose density and muscle mass deteriorates, often resulting in the shrunken, hunched posture associated with advanced age.
Even internal organs transform over the years. Lungs expand less, making breathing more difficult. Kidneys shrink and become less efficient at filtering waste. The heart muscle thickens, forcing it to work harder to pump blood. The brain itself shrinks, impacting memory, cognition and coordination. Though less visible than enlarging noses and ears, these internal changes profoundly impact the aging process.
As we’ve seen, aging brings about many changes great and small to the human body. While some transformations like graying locks are obvious, others happen gradually over decades and catch us by surprise. The persistent growth of the nose and ears serves as a stark reminder that aging is an incremental, lifelong process.
These unassuming organs offer windows into the strange workings of our bodies that defy our intuitions. While we mentally cling to the vigor of youth, our physical forms operate by their own rules and rhythms that often seem perplexing or even rebellious. But embracing these quirks can help us appreciate the complexity of the human body and accept our mortality with grace.
Ultimately, paying attention to the subtle effects of aging grants us insight into this incredible phenomenon that none of us can escape. Noticing small changes reminds us to appreciate the blessings of health and physical vitality while we have them. And the next time you look at an old photo, take a moment to observe how your nose and ears tell the tale of time’s inevitable march. For these humble organs never stop their gradual plodding growth, no matter how old we may get.