Harvard Health Letter

Old noses have more room inside

Our noses grow a bit longer as we grow older, and gravity tugs down on the tip, so it droops more. Those nicely curved outside walls of the nostrils — they tend to weaken, so when we inhale, they're more likely to cave in, making it harder for the incoming air to get through. These and other subtle changes in nasal architecture can make it increasingly difficult to breathe through the nose.

But a study conducted in Germany shows that there may be some age-related changes to the nose that offset those that interfere with nasal breathing. Researchers inspected the noses of 80 volunteers with an instrument that uses sound waves to measure cross-sectional areas and volumes inside the nose. The nasal cavities of the older people (average age, 70) in the study turned out to be quite a bit larger than the cavities of the younger group (average age, 27). Moreover, there was no difference between the older and younger groups on questionnaires designed to identify problems with nasal breathing and other nose-related problems. (A sense of humor is evident: one of the questionnaires is called Sino-Nasal Outcome Test, or SNOT.)

But the reason for late-life roominess of nasal cavities isn't anything to be too terribly happy about. The German researchers chalked it up to the mucosal lining of the nose getting thinner. No one wants a nose plugged up with too much mucus, but the mucosal lining serves all kinds of good purposes, including the capture of infectious agents and dirt from the air.

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