They are the last place you might think to look for clues about your health and wellbeing – but scientists have discovered our ears can tells us a lot about everything from the risk of heart disease to the state of our teeth.
Experts at University College London recently found measuring glucose levels in ear wax could be the secret to picking up type 2 diabetes – which affects more than four million people – much sooner in life.
They tested a handheld DIY gadget that collects tiny samples of wax and measures how much glucose is in it.
The results can give vital clues as to whether somebody is on the verge of becoming diabetic, which means earlier treatment or lifestyle changes that can help to keep it at bay.
Research leader Dr Andres Herane-Vives said: “This could be a cheaper, more precise way to measure someone’s long-term glucose levels.”
So what are the other health secrets hiding in our ears?
Wax test that shows how stressed you are
The team at UCL used the same handheld device to take samples of ear wax to test levels of cortisol – a hormone released by our bodies when we are under stress.
Prolonged exposure to raised levels is thought to cause damaging inflammation inside the body, which may increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Current cortisol testing relies on taking blood samples, although it can also be detected in hair, urine and saliva.
Dr Herane-Vives says: “Cortisol sampling is notoriously difficult, as levels of the hormone can fluctuate.
“A single sample might not be an accurate reflection of a person’s chronic levels and the blood sampling method itself is stressful, which can influence theresults.”
A spin-off company from UCL is currently being set up to market the new device.
Creased ear lobe? You could have heart disease
If your GP starts checking your ears when you say you are worried about your heart, don’t be tempted to switch doctors.
Countless studies have suggested a diagonal crease in the ear lobe – running from the entrance to the ear canal to bottom of the lobe – is an early warning sign for a failing heart.
It’s thought that tiny blood vessels in the ear tend to shrink and wither as they get blocked by disease.
The same thing is possibly happening to blood vessels in and around the heart but without any symptoms to indicate a problem.
One major study found 47 per cent of men in their fifties who suffered a heart attack had a crease in one or both ears, compared to 30 per cent of men the same age with healthy hearts.
Blocked ears can make dementia worse
Dementia is a complex illness thought to be due to numerous factors, from family history and smoking to high blood pressure and poor diet.
But a key factor in its progression can also be hearing loss, as it’s thought to accelerate the decline in cognitive ability.
Age-related hearing loss is irreversible. But when it’s due to a build-up of wax, removing it can make a big difference, according to a 2016 study in Japan.
It found elderly patients with dementia saw a significant improvement in memory function scores once the wax had been cleared out of their ears.
The results were so surprising researchers called for all dementia patients to have annual ear checks to see if wax was part of the problem.
Ear pain can reveal tooth problems
Earache often has nothing to do with the ear at all. It can be down to problems brewing around the teeth or the jaw, such as a gum abscess or night-time teeth grinding.
The close proximity between them means the discomfort can be mistaken for an inner ear infection. The NHS says the most common reason for pain is a problem with the temporomandibular joint – where the lower jaw connects up to the skull, just in front of the ear.
It acts like a hinge, but when it goes wrong, the pain tends to spread to the ear canal.
Burning ears may signal migraine
In rare cases, migraine sufferers can develop burning red ears before the onset of a full attack, or even without a headache at all.
The condition – called red ear syndrome – is rare but when an attack happens, episodes can last from just a few seconds to several hours. In some sufferers, the attacks occur several times a day while others may only get them a few times a year.
But it’s not just migraine sufferers at risk. Red ear syndrome can be triggered in some people just by rubbing the ear, a change in temperature or brushing your hair.
Scientists think it’s caused by a problem with the sensitivity of the nerves in the ear.
Small ears warn of kidney problems
Neat little ears are often deemed to be more attractive than larger lugs, but they could also mean an increased risk of a health problem lower down thebody.
Studies suggest those of us with small auricles – the whole outer part of the ear – are more prone to kidney disease in adulthood.
And it’s not just the size but the position of them that counts.
Low-set ears – situated below eye level – can also indicate issues with your kidneys.
It’s not clear why, but scientists think it may be due to a problem during development in the womb, as the ears and the kidneys tend to form at the same time.
Deaf on one side? Get a tumour check
Hearing loss in one ear is often due to an infection, a blow to the ear or a build-up of fluid in the ear canal.
But in rare cases it may also stem from an acoustic neuroma.
This is a non-cancerous tumour that, as it expands, presses on the auditory nerve, the main route of transmission for sounds travelling to the brain.
Other signs include dizziness, facial drooping on one side and ringing in the ears.
Slow-growing neuromas are often left alone, but they can be surgically removed or zapped with radiation to kill them off.