April 16, 2015

What's healthier: Being tall or being short?

Daily Briefing

Although a recent study linked shorter statures to greater risk of heart disease, research generally suggests that some groups of shorter people actually have lower risk of cardiac death and mortality from cancer, James Hamblin writes in The Atlantic.

Details of the heart disease study

The new study on heart disease, published in NEJM, found that individuals with genetic variants associated with shorter stature were more susceptible to heart disease.

Specifically, the study found that for every 2.5 inches of height, a person's heart disease risk declines by 13.5%. For instance, a person who is five feet six inches is 30% less likely to develop heart disease than an individual who is just five feet tall.

The study authors found that genetic variants linked with shorter stature were also connected with slightly increased levels of LDL, the form of cholesterol that increases the risk of heart disease, and to marginally higher levels of triglycerides.

But researchers contend the links were not enough to account for all of the increased risk. Instead, researchers suggested that height genes' governance of mechanisms controlling the development of blood vessels and bones could explain the link. 

But is taller really better?

Some observers say taller people are held in higher esteem, have higher IQs, and are more universally attractive than their shorter counterparts.

Over the past 200 years, the average height of Dutch citizens has increased by nearly eight inches—making the population the tallest people on the planet. According to researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tall Dutch men are more likely to have children than shorter men, but researchers cannot predict whether they are more fertile or simply more attractive to women. 

Yet in the United States, average-height men and short women are most likely to reproduce. So, writes Hamblin, "While being tall can suggest evolutionary advantage in some places, it doesn't in others. And reproductive ability does not mean longevity."

Your height may predict your cancer risk

For instance, shorter southern Europeans have lower rates of cardiac death, and Spanish and Portuguese citizens—who tend to be about five inches shorter, on average—are two times less likely to die from heart disease than their counterparts in Sweden and Norway.

Similarly, a 2013 study of about 145,000 women from researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine "confirm[ed] the positive association of height with risk of all cancers." And another study found a higher rate of several cancers in taller men and women and an increased rate of mortality from cancer in taller men. 

So, concludes Hamblin, "last week's heart disease study is far from another reason to want to be taller" (Hamblin, The Atlantic, 4/14).

The takeaway: The Atlantic's James Hamblin breaks down several studies into the health risks associated with height.

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