By Dr. Mercola
Most kids love hearing people comment on how tall they’re getting. In some circles, particularly homes where sports like volleyball or basketball are revered and often played, being tall is considered a definite plus. But new research has emerged that suggests being taller — or significantly shorter than average — isn’t necessarily better in terms of health and may even pose health risks.
Part of the impact comes from how your height might affect your organs, studies say, such as one published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics.1 Scientists explored how height and venous thromboembolism, the third leading cause of heart attack and stroke, may be associated. According to the study, the condition is also known as VTE and the more simple term “blood clots.”
Evaluating a group of more than 2 million Swedish siblings, men shorter than 5 feet 3 inches in height had a 65 percent lower chance of acquiring VTE, a type of blood clot that begins in a vein, when compared to men taller than 6 feet 2 inches.
Other aspects of the study included pregnant women, who are more prone to develop this type of blood clot, and the finding that those shorter than 5 feet 1 inch had a 69 percent lower incidence of the condition compared to women over 6 feet. That supports the premise of another interesting study from 2003 that suggests shorter people are, on average, the ones with longer lifespans.2 According to CNN:
“Among men, an association with height was found for risk of blood clots in the lungs, called pulmonary embolism, as well as in the legs and other locations. Among women, only the risk of blood clots in the legs was significantly associated with height.”3
Some scientists questioned the fact that the studies focused on Swedish individuals and how that might relate to people in the U.S., but others maintain that Sweden is just as ethnically diverse as populations in the U.S.
Studies on How Height May Affect Health
According to the study, gravity may hold the most culpability in causing the problem. As Dr. Bengt Zöller, associate professor at Lund University and Malmö University Hospital in Sweden and the study’s lead researcher, explained, gravitational pressure in the veins of longer legs can cause blood flow to slow or even stop temporarily. Zöller noted:
“Height is not something we can do anything about. However, the height in the population has increased, and continues increasing, which could be contributing to the fact that the incidence of thrombosis has increased.”4
Unfortunately, thromboembolisms now affect 600,000 people in the U.S. annually. The problem is becoming so prevalent around the world that Zöller wonders whether height should be a consideration in peoples’ health profiles in relation to risk right along with a patient’s weight, “although formal studies are needed to determine exactly how height interacts with inherited blood disorders and other conditions,” he adds.
Zöller believes it may also be because taller people have longer leg veins, which means there’s more surface area for problems to occur. In addition, immobilization, cancer, surgery and hospitalization can trigger the condition.
There’s another aspect to consider, however. Dr. Mary Cushman, professor of medicine and pathology and director of the Thrombosis and Hemostasis Program at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, observed that the study supports evidence that, while overall body size is an important factor in VTE development, it occurs in the legs as opposed to the arms for a reason:
“Basically, the blood has to travel up a vein against gravity, and when there is a longer distance to travel, there is more opportunity for the blood to clot abnormally. This is not the case in the arms, for example, where arm movement allows blood to more easily flow out of the limb with the help of gravity.”5
In women, not only pregnancy but the use of oral contraceptives, estrogen and other hormones for menopause symptoms seemed to be significant triggers for VTE. However, the researchers didn’t have access to records of the study participants regarding their childhoods or information on their parents’ lifestyles, such as whether or not they were smokers, maintained healthy weights or exercised.
The bottom line regarding blood clots is how dangerous they can be. According to Cushman, blood clots can be deadly because they can break free from leg veins and travel to the lung. If it’s big enough, it can kill you, and it’s sometimes quite sudden.6
Height-Related Health Risks
It may be surprising to some, having never heard there were any problems associated with greater-than-average height, but Time lists several physical aspects influenced, for good and for ill, by height. In fact, there are risk factors, but also possible benefits. Certain cancers are more prevalent in tall people, including aggressive forms of prostate cancer in men and melanoma, breast, endometrial, colon and ovarian cancers in women.
The National Cancer Institute reported in mid-2015 that height is a definite risk factor in women developing breast cancer, especially as genetic factors and biological pathways can influence height.7
According to a 2016 review published in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology,8 eating too many animal proteins during crucial stages of growth and development, including the period before birth, may increase a person’s height and exponentially increase their chances of dying from cancer. Researchers called the problem “over-nutrition.”
What over-nutrition could lead to, the report states, is activation of growth processes that leave cells vulnerable to mutations. Further, co-author Matthias Schulze, of the German Institute of Human Nutrition, noted that height may influence how large organs become; the larger the organ, the more at risk cells are to malignant transformation. As the Lancet explains:
“These pathways are thought to be activated by over-nutrition, especially increased intake of milk, dairy products, and other animal proteins during different stages of child development. Limiting over-nutrition during pregnancy, early childhood, and puberty would avoid not only obesity, but also accelerated growth in children — and thus might reduce risk of cancer in adulthood.”9
In addition, researchers scrutinized 135,861 pregnant women with different racial profiles in the U.S. and 5,567 were found to have gestational diabetes. The study showed that those who were taller had a 60 percent lower risk for the disease in comparison with women on the shorter end of the scale, even with age and weight factored in.10
Being Tall Linked to Lowered Heart Disease and Diabetes Rates
While being taller may increase certain cancer risks, taller people may benefit from lower heart disease and diabetes rates, because they often have larger lungs and more robust hearts. The “over-nutrition” many tall people have engaged in may translate to increased production of a hormone that helps optimize cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
CNN cites a 2012 study11 in which researchers concluded that being taller was negatively associated with heart disease, heart failure, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as stomach and oral cancers, liver disease and mental disorders.
However, the abstract of the comprehensive review, composed of about 121 studies and involving around 1 million people, also listed positive associations to being the tallest one in the room, including that taller people may be at increased risk of “[d]eath from ruptured aortic aneurysm, pulmonary embolism, melanoma and cancers of the pancreas, endocrine and nervous systems, ovary, breast, prostate, colorectum, blood and lung.”
More Blood Clots and Higher AFib Risk
With every rule there seems to be an exception, and that’s true with taller people, thought to have overall healthier hearts. The exception was found during a 16-year study12 presented at a cardiology conference in early 2017, which revealed that taller, larger women are almost three times more likely to have atrial fibrillation, a dangerous condition involving heart rhythm irregularity, commonly known as AFib, or AF.
It’s a problem that develops gradually as young women grow into adults and reach physical maturity, because the larger a young woman’s body size becomes, the greater her chance of developing the irregularity, the study cautioned. Health.com noted:
“Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat that develops in the atria — the two upper chambers of the heart. The quivering heartbeat increases risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart rhythm problems … It’s the most common heart rhythm disorder, and everyone has a 1 in 5 chance of developing atrial fibrillation during their lifetime, the researchers said in background information. The problem occurs most often in people older than 60.”13
Study author Dr. Annika Rosengren, professor of internal medicine at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, observed that the implications of the problem may be bigger than scientists first realized simply because the global population is becoming both taller and heavier overall. As a consequence, “We might be looking at substantially more AF in the future.”
Research first focused on young men who may be exhibiting AFib due to their height and accompanying weight, which sparked the study in young women. Studies began with 1.5 million Swedish women experiencing their first pregnancy, the average age being 28. The women were examined at intervals for the 16-year study, their height and weight being recorded along with heart-related health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking.
During that time, more than 7,000 women were hospitalized with atrial fibrillation, at an average age of 49. Compared to smaller women, those with the most “body surface area” exhibited a 2.6-times greater risk, leading doctors to conclude that taller, larger body size is an indication of a larger atria, an area that encompasses the two upper chambers of the heart.
These individuals are likely to have more pressure against their lungs, which can cause the atrium to distend, as well as interrupt the heart’s electrical pathways, according to Dr. Allan Stewart, director of aortic surgery for Mount Sinai Health System in New York City.
You Can’t Change Your Height, so What’s the Takeaway?
It’s true that you can’t change your height, but the primary implication of these studies is that while everyone should be guarding their health, taller people need to be eating right, exercising regularly and building solid, foundational lifestyles to optimize their health and longevity. Dr. Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, an attending physician of internal medicine at New York University’s Langone Health in New York (not involved in the new study), asserts:
“The bottom line regarding this recent study, whether you are a taller or shorter individual, you must be aware of all the additional lifestyle factors that may increase your risk for blood clots, such as smoking or a sedentary lifestyle. We have no control over our height, but we certainly can all take the appropriate measures in making healthy lifestyle choices to reduce the risk of various conditions.”14
Experts even say the potential effects of height on disease and mortality risk are still likely very low — certainly lower than the risk factors you can control, such as diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol consumption.