There are times when researchers discover interesting additional information when trying to find answers to the most puzzling health questions. In recent years, many of these unusual findings have been linked to an individual’s risk of developing heart disease.
It sounds unlikely and somewhat amusing, but more than two dozen scientific studies conducted over the past few decades have examined the relationship between earlobe creases and an increased risk of heart disease. Perhaps the most famous of these studies was published in 1991. Researchers at the University of Chicago followed more than 100 subjects for 10 years and found that individuals with a diagonal crease over the earlobe had significantly more cases of heart disease or death from heart-related disease than the one without such a fold. The researchers in Chicago were not alone in their findings.
Swedish researchers performed more than 500 autopsies on victims of cardiac arrest or heart disease and found that earlobe creases were a “positive predictive value” for more than 68 percent of the subjects they examined. More than 80 percent of their subjects under the age of 40 who had succumbed to coronary artery disease had earlobe creases. A Turkish study found that earlobe creases were a more serious risk factor for heart disease than family history, diabetes, or even smoking. At the Montreal Heart Institute, researchers reviewed cases from nearly 350 hospitalized patients. Of those, 91 percent of patients with earlobe creases had heart disease, compared to only 61 percent of those without creases. Irish scientists studied nearly 250 patients and found that earlobe creases were indicative of heart disease in more than 71 percent of participants.
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All this research seems to support what statisticians call low sensitivity-high specificity. This means that individuals without earlobe creases are not necessarily immune to heart disease, but individuals with earlobe creases are much more likely to have cardiovascular problems at some point in their lives. While this evidence seems to make a strong case for the relationship between earlobe creases and cardiovascular disease, it is essential to note that many similar studies have failed to find such a link. There is currently no medical consensus on whether or not earlobe creases are a significant indicator of heart disease or a person’s predisposition to it. Most experts believe that wrinkling simply increases with age, as does the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
However, earlobe creases are by no means the only unusual suspected risk factors for heart disease.
In 2004, British researchers at the University of Bristol announced they had found evidence of a relationship between a woman’s leg length and her risk of developing heart disease. Of the 4,000 participants, those with the shortest legs were at the highest risk of developing heart problems. For every four centimeters above a certain base leg length, the risk decreased by 16 percent. Leg length remained a strong risk indicator even after including more traditional causes of heart disease, such as high cholesterol, weight, age, tobacco use and poor lung function.
Ring finger length
Researchers from the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom found that men with short ring fingers had lower testosterone levels, which increased their risk of an early heart attack. The Liverpool study measured participants’ index and ring fingers and then divided the lengths. In subjects with a ratio of measurements greater than 1.0, testosterone levels were found to be significantly lower than in subjects whose measurements fell in a smaller ratio of measurements. Low testosterone levels have been associated with higher rates of early heart attack.
Male pattern baldness
In a study of more than 22,000 male physicians conducted over the course of 11 years, researchers found that participants with frontal baldness were nearly 10 percent more likely to develop heart disease than their non-balding counterparts, while subjects with more hair loss or crown baldness 23 to almost 40 percent more likely to have heart disease. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Arizona confirmed that baldness does indeed increase the risk of heart disease, but ultimately concluded that hair loss in itself was not a reliable indicator of risk.
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Halitosis is just one of the side effects caused by advanced gum disease, and studies have shown that individuals with this condition produce antibodies that increase their risk of heart disease by as much as 100 percent. One study even reported that treating gum disease could reverse the thickening of the carotid arteries.
Widely regarded as a positive trait, a British study found that clear skin can be a potentially life-threatening condition. Of the 11,000 men who participated in the study, those who had acne as teens were 30 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or heart disease in middle age and beyond.
A study recently published in the Biochemical Journal has suggested a link between cardiovascular disease and green-tinted mucus. The discoloration is caused by an enzyme in the body called myeloperoxidase, which fights bacteria by producing an acid that can damage tissue and lead to asthma, arthritis and thickening of arterial walls.
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There are two different types of earwax: dry and wet. Individuals produce only one or the other species throughout their lives, and the type of earwax seems to be a hereditary trait. A 1966 Japanese study found that individuals who produced dry earwax had an increased risk of arterial thickening than those who produced wet earwax. Since then, no other study has confirmed these findings — in fact, a later peer review concluded that the results should be viewed with suspicion. But when one considers all the other strange indicators of heart disease, the kind of wax a person produces is certainly no stranger than any other potential risk factor.
Cardiovascular disease is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that should never be taken lightly. However, these unusual risk factors can certainly add some lightness to the conversation.