Through history there have been several marks that people have used to pigeonhole others - like the scarlet letter. I've always thought that such marks were comfortably distant from my own life.

Imagine my surprise when I picked up newspaper after newspaper to find the same story about a new wrinkle in heart care. It reported that an earlobe crease may be an early warning sign of heart disease.In USA TODAY there was even a drawing of an ear with the appropriate diagonal crease to illustrate. Immediately, I raced to a mirror to check my own lobes - and sure enough, I have the tale-tell crease in both lobes.

So for the next several depressing days I became acutely aware of my own lobes, knowing that other people were studying them to see if I am heart-attack prone.

In fact the converse was also true. I found myself ignoring people's eyes and going straight for their lobes to check for the crease.

I also felt keenly my own mortality. How long would I live? Only my lobes know for sure.

William Elliott of the University of Chicago says his eight-year study of 108 people found the connection. In 27 groups of four men and women, those with the crease who began with no heart disease had eight times more sudden deaths, heart attacks and bypass surgeries than healthy people without the crease.

One explanation is that blocked arteries in the earlobe may warn of heart blockages. There may also be a loss of elastin, which increases blood flow - or there may be an ancient link between the heart and lobe known by Chinese acupuncturists.

I asked Dr. Roger Williams, who heads a heart research team at the University of Utah, to comment on it. He said that from his own research he thinks there is definitely something to the crease idea, and that the evidence is convincing enough to make Elliott's research unnecessary.

"He's an assistant professor, and so he may not have read all the literature, but this idea has been well-established for some time."

But the reason for the crease is different than reported in the media, according to Williams. He looked at both of my lobes, then asked me if I slept on my side.

"Yes," I said.

"Which side?" he asked.

"Both sides."

"That's why you have creases in both earlobes. Everyone who sleeps on his side will eventually have a crease. I have a crease in only one lobe because I only sleep on one side."

Williams suggested that the critical factor to consider is the reason a person sleeps on his side.

"If it is because it is more difficult to breathe when sleeping on your back - or if there is a tendency toward sleep apnea, the condition which causes some people to stop breathing during sleep, then the crease becomes an important indicator. In fact, some people die of heart attacks in their sleep."

But Williams hastened to add that cholesterol levels are infinitely more important as indicators of potential heart disease than earlobe creases.

It's probably too late for me to try to get rid of the creases by sleeping on my back. So I'll just have to wait for the hoopla over the earlobe stories to die down. In the meantime I will put up with the waves of curious onlookers who want to get close enough to me to inspect my lobes.

I did hear something encouraging. CBS's bright light of commentary, Charles Osgood, announced on one of his broadcasts that he too has a crease in each earlobe. Now I'm trying to find other prominent, interesting people with earlobe creases so that I will be in good company.

As if this news wasn't bad enough, the newspapers also recently announced that being left-handed appears to translate into an average nine-year reduction in life span. Death due to accident is listed nearly six times more often for left-handed people than for right-handed people.

At least no one can tell a leftie until he whips out a pen or throws a ball. But for those of us cursed with the crease - there is nowhere to hide.