New research suggests the damage caused by chronic ear infections could be linked to people's preference for fatty foods, which increases their risk of being overweight as they age.
Five separate studies aired at the American Psychological Association's conference showed an association between either ear infection or tonsil removal surgery and obesity.
Linda Bartoshuk of the University of Florida College of Dentistry presented some preliminary findings that a strong link between localised taste damage from chronic middle ear infections, or otitis media, and an increased preference for high-fat foods.
"Middle ear infection is a common childhood disease and obesity is a growing problem worldwide," she said. "Any potential association between these two public health issues is of considerable interest."
John Hayes of Brown University and his collaborators at the University of Connecticut, found associations between otitis media exposure, taste, food choice and obesity. Among middle-aged women, those with taste functioning consistent with taste nerve damage preferred sweet and high-fat foods more and were more likely to have larger waists. In another study, they found preschoolers with a severe history of ear infections ate fewer vegetables and more sweets and tended to be heavier.
Scientists are also looking at the possibility that damage to other taste nerves may also be associated with weight gain. Having the tonsils removed also appears to have an effect on whether a child will be overweight.