Your Height Could Influence How You’ll Die

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Portrait of three girls, in high heel shoes. Studio shot, white
“The tall, the wise, the reverend head, / Must lie as low as ours.” —Isaac Watts

In A Nutshell

A series of studies that have looked at the correlation between height and death have come across some startling statistics. While shorter people are statistically more likely to die from heart disease or stroke (possibly because of the size of the arteries), taller people have a higher chance of being diagnosed with cancer. Taller women are at a higher risk of developing blood clots than shorter ones, but many other factors—including things like lifestyle and genetics—make the whole matter incredibly complicated.

The Whole Bushel

We’re all aware of the impact our weight has on our health and longevity, but what about height?

A handful of studies have been done on the links between height and causes of death or chronic illnesses. It turns out that whether you’re tall or short, there’s some bad news for you.

A study headed by professors from the UK’s University of Leicester looked at a possible connection between height and heart disease. They investigated 180 genetic markers and specifically looked for those associated with both height and heart disease.

They found evidence that the shorter you are, the more likely you are to develop coronary heart disease.

For every 6.35-centimeter (2.5 in) increase in a person’s height, that person’s chances of developing coronary artery disease dropped by an average of 13.5 percent. When they isolated the genetic markers that were associated with increased height, they found that the people who had the most instances of these markers were 26 percent less likely to develop the condition than those at the bottom of the range.

While they note that lifestyle choices have a huge impact on likelihood of developing heart disease, they say that the correlation is too great to dismiss outright.

Importantly, the link was only found in men. Another study, published in the European Heart Journal, supports the link and suggests that it has something to do with the smaller coronary arteries that develop in shorter people.

It’s not all that clear-cut, though. Another study from the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association seemed to find a different pattern when their research connected height to strokes. More than 10,000 men were involved in the 23-year study.

This study found that the taller a person was, the less chance they had of dying of a stroke, even when factoring in lifestyle and age.

Before tall people start celebrating, there’s some bad news for them, too. According to research by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, for every 10 centimeters (4 in) of height you add, you’re also adding a 13 percent increase in the likelihood of a cancer diagnosis. And that includes nearly all types of cancer, from thyroid and kidney cancer to breast cancer.

Taller women are also at a greater risk for developing blood clots. According to the researchers for an Iowa women’s health project, they found that women who suffered more than one blood clot were taller, and those taller than 168 centimeters (5’6”) were 76 percent more likely to have recurring blood clots than those who were only 158 centimeters (5’2”) tall.

The whole idea of height as an indicator of other health risks had something of an unlikely origin.

The popularity of height and weight tables really took off thanks to the insurance industry, when people who were underweight were considered the biggest risks. The theory was that if someone who didn’t have some extra weight on them were to contract tuberculosis (or a similar disease), they would have less reserves to draw on and were more likely to die quickly.

It was only when modern medicine caught up and started making many of these diseases controllable—if not altogether obsolete—that there was a shift in what was considered an ideal combination of height and weight.

Show Me The Proof

LiveScience: Why Short People May Have Higher Risk of Heart Disease
“Body Height Is Associated With Decreased Long-Term Stroke but Not Coronary Heart Disease Mortality?” by Uri Goldbourt and David Tanne
European Heart Journal: Short stature is associated with coronary heart disease
Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention: Adult Stature and Risk of Cancer at Different Anatomic Sites in a Cohort of Postmenopausal Women
Iowa Women’s Health Study: Adult Stature and Risk of Cancer at Different Anatomic Sites in a Cohort of Postmenopausal Women
US National Library of Medicine: Average? Ideal? Desirable?