- By Emily Gurnon
There are a lot of things we can control about our bodies — but height is not one of them. And that can be a health risk.
A shorter stature puts you at higher risk of coronary heart disease, said a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers at the University of Leicester in England found that every 2.5 inches of your height affects your risk by about 13.5 percent. For instance, a person who is 5'6" will have a 32 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease than someone who is 5-feet-tall, the study said.
Decoding the Mystery
“For more than 60 years it has been known that there is an inverse relationship between height and risk of coronary heart disease,” said Dr. Nilesh Samani, British Heart Foundation professor of cardiology at the University of Leicester. “We have shown that the association between shorter height and higher risk of coronary heart disease is a primary relationship and is not due to confounding factors such as nutrition or poor socioeconomic conditions.”
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The research was based on “very large scale genetic studies,” said Dr. Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, one of the funders of the study.
“The team has identified several ways that naturally occurring gene variations can control both a person’s height and their risk of coronary heart disease,” Pearson said in a statement. “Further exploration of these genes may suggest new ways to reduce the risk of heart and circulatory disease.”
Don't Lose Heart
Dr. Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said the research should not scare people.
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“This study does not suggest that short people should be unduly worried about their health or that doctors need to focus on the health of shorter patients — it suggests that some of the genes that determine our height may also have an influence on factors that make us more susceptible to heart disease, for example our blood lipids,” Weissberg said. “Further research will hopefully identify what these new factors are.”
Regardless of height, everyone should do what they can to stay as healthy as possible, he added. That means eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and not smoking.
Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States for men and women.
Calcium As a Marker
The research affirms a previous study of 2,703 patients that concluded that there might be a connection between height and how much coronary artery calcium, or CAC, is present in the body. CAC is a direct marker of plaque in the arteries.
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"A potential link between height and (coronary heart disease) has been shown in several studies but the mechanism of this relationship has not been clear and our study suggests the relationship is mediated by plaque build-up in the coronary arteries," said Dr. Michael Miedema, of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.
He said in connection with that research, published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging in 2013, that there may be as much as a 30 percent lower risk of plaque build-up in the tallest one-fourth of adults compared to the bottom quarter.
Miedema added this week that the evidence for the relationship between height and heart disease has been limited for the most part to Caucasians. The correlation has not been shown in African-Americans, for instance, though that could be due in part to smaller sample sizes, he said.
Fortunately, 80 percent of cardiac events can be avoided with education and lifestyle changes, the American Heart Association estimates.