The Surprising Ways Your Height Affects Your Health
Height may not seem like something that would impact your health, but it can play a role. There are lots of things you can do to give your health a boost, from eating right to getting enough sleep. And there are plenty of habits and lifestyle choices that aren’t doing your health any favors, such as smoking or being sedentary. Unfortunately, though, height, like age, is one of those factors that we can’t do anything about. Nevertheless, it can still increase or decrease the likelihood of certain conditions.
Our height is determined by a mix of biology and environment. According to Medical News Today, "The main factor that influences a person’s height is their genetic makeup. However, many other factors can influence height during development, including nutrition, hormones, activity levels, and medical conditions."
In the United States, average adult height is 69 inches (about 5’7") for men and 63 inches (5’3") for women. Taller, shorter, or on par with the national average? We’ve got you covered. Here’s a look at the ways your height is affecting your health.
Shorter people are more likely to suffer from heart disease
Being vertically challenged may not be good for your heart. According to a 2010 meta-analysis of 52 studies published in the European Heart Journal, short men and women are more likely to both have and die from heart disease. The researchers found that those in the shortest group (under 5’3") had a 50 percent greater chance of dying from heart disease than did those in the tallest group (above 5’8").
Another study published in 2015 found that women taller than 5’8" were 28 percent less likely to develop heart disease compared to those who were 5’3" or under (via Women’s Health). For every 2.5 inches of height gained, risk of heart disease decreased by 13.5 percent (via Glamour). The researchers speculated that the connection may be due to the fact that shorter people tend to have higher cholesterol levels.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming the lives of around 655,000 people each year. Risk factors other than height include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes, and physical inactivity.
Shorter people are less likely to get blood clots
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein. While they can sometimes occur in the arm, DVTs are usually found in the lower leg, thigh, or pelvis. If part of the clot breaks off and travels to the lungs it can cause a potentially life-threatening blockage called a pulmonary embolism.
A 2011 study published in the journal Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology concluded that "the combination of obesity and a tall stature was associated with a substantially increased risk of VTE [venous thromboembolism], especially in men." Compared with men 172 cm (about 5’8") and under with a normal BMI, obese and tall men (about 6′ and taller) were over five times more likely to experience a VTE.
Compared to women 5’2" and under with a normal BMI, obese and tall women (5’6" and taller) were nearly three times more likely to experience a VTE, while obese and short women were 1.83 times more likely.
Does your height affect your blood pressure?
If we were to tell you that taller people tend to have higher blood pressure, that might not surprise you. After all, their blood has a longer journey as it circulates through their body, right? That’s exactly the conclusion a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology came to. Researchers followed children for a number of years and found that those with longer trunk length had higher blood pressure, "perhaps because of the additional pressure needed to overcome gravity to perfuse the brain [with blood]."
However, a comprehensive study published in the journal Medicine in 2017 did not find the same results when it examined a group of almost 13,000 adults. The researchers observed that taller individuals actually had "significantly lower" systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading that indicates pressure when the heart is contracting) and pulse pressure, but higher diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number in a blood pressure reading that indicates pressure when the heart is relaxed).
Hypertension, defined as a blood pressure above 120/80, affects approximately 45 percent of American adults. Although you can’t change your height, you can incorporate healthy habits to help prevent high blood pressure.
Shorter people are more likely to have a fatal stroke
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 795,000 people have a stroke each year and stroke is the fifth leading cause of death. The CDC cited high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and smoking as key risk factors, but some research suggests height may also play a role.
One 2002 study published in the journal Stroke, for instance, compared data from more than 10,000 men and found that the shortest group were over 50 percent more likely to have a fatal stroke compared to the tallest study participants. While the researchers weren’t exactly sure why height played a role, they speculated that it may have to do with the fact that stature is a "potential strong indicator of nutritional status."
Another study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology came to a similar conclusion. Researchers examined data from more than 7,500 men and found that shorter individuals were more likely than taller ones to have a fatal stroke, though not more likely to have a nonfatal stroke. In other words, being tall doesn’t make you more likely to have a stroke, but if you do have one, it is more likely to be fatal.
The taller you are, the less likely you are to get type 2 diabetes
As part of a 2019 study published in the journal Diabetologia, researchers examined how height (measured as total height, leg length, and sitting height) affected a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes. The study concluded that among both men and women, greater total height was associated with a lower incidence of diabetes. In men, however, only longer leg length appeared to contribute to the relationship while in women both leg length and sitting height seemed to play a role.
Despite the apparent link, Dr. Mathias Schulze, the lead author of the study, noted in an interview with WebMD that it’s unclear if there’s a specific height at which additional screening for diabetes should begin. "As risk continuously increases with shorter height, there isn’t a cutoff height available," he explained.
Nevertheless, Dr. Joel Zonszein, director of the clinical diabetes center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, added that a person’s height is "just a small contributor to [diabetes risk]." More important risk factors include a "family history of diabetes, physical activity, diet, fat and fat distribution, blood lipids [cholesterol], and finally, [blood sugar levels]," according to Zonszein.
Height can affect how likely women are to break a bone
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, approximately 10 million Americans have osteoporosis while an additional 44 million have low bone density. The result? Half of all women and a quarter of all men will break a bone sometime after turning 50 due to osteoporosis. The condition leads to more than two million broken bones each year, with the hip, spine, forearm, and wrist being the most common sites of fracture. While the organization noted that "diet, exercise and a healthy lifestyle are keys to preventing and managing the disease," research suggests that height may also matter.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research followed postmenopausal women for three years to see how their weight, height, and BMI affected the likelihood of a fracture. The researchers also noted where fractures occurred (hip, spine, wrist, pelvis, rib, upper arm/shoulder, clavicle, ankle, lower leg, or upper leg). For most of these sites, weight and BMI had a greater impact than height. However, taller stature did increase the chances of an upper arm/shoulder or clavicle fracture significantly.
Does your height impact your chances of getting lower back pain?
It seems logical that the taller you are, the more likely it is that you’ll have to deal with back pain, but research on the connection between height and back pain is mixed. A study of more than 3,250 men and women published in the journal Rheumatology investigated whether standing or sitting height had an impact on the incidences of sciatica (compression of the sciatic nerve in the lower back, causing pain in the back, hips, and outer sides of the legs), lumbago (pain in the muscles or joints of the lower back), and severe backache. The researchers noted an increase in prevalence of these conditions as height increased. They were not, however, able to explain why the connection existed.
Interestingly, a study published in the International Journal of Obesity didn’t get the same results. This research examined data from over 12,000 men and women and found that the "tallest subjects did not report low back pain symptoms more often than shortest subjects."
Tall or short, 80 percent of individuals will experience back pain at least some time in their lives, and back pain is the third most common reason people go to the doctor, according to the American Chiropractic Association.
Being tall puts you at greater risk for cancer
The National Institutes of Health estimates that 39.5 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with at least one type of cancer during their lives. The most common types of cancer include breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, and melanoma.
Although most cancers are caused by a complex mix of genes, environment, and lifestyle choices, height may also be a factor. A 2013 study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found that taller height was associated with greater risk for a number of cancers among postmenopausal women. "We observed a 13 percent increase in risk for all cancers combined for every 10 centimeter (about 4 inches) increase in height," study researcher Dr. Thomas Rohan, a professor of epidemiolgy and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, explained of the study to NBC News.
In an interview with Science Daily, Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, lead author of the study, noted that more cancers were associated with tall height than with higher BMI. The reason? "Ultimately, cancer is a result of processes having to do with growth, so it makes sense that hormones or other growth factors that influence height may also influence cancer risk," he explained.
Your height can play a role in fertility
You’ve probably heard the theory that claims women prefer tall men, but can a person’s height impact fertility? Research suggests that it can, but in different ways for men and women.
In a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, researchers measured the "reproductive output (number of children born and number of surviving children)" of more than 94,000 Dutch men and women. They concluded that "average height women have higher fertility, compared with both shorter and taller women, and that taller men have higher fertility compared with shorter men."
Another paper published in the journal also explained that tall women haven’t been found to be more fertile than average-height ones. Daniel Nettle, the study’s author and behavioral scientist, concluded, "Men do not use stature as a positive mate-choice criterion as women do. It is argued that there is good evolutionary reason for this, because men are orientated towards cues of fertility, and female height, being positively related to age of sexual maturity, is not such a cue."
Shorter women have higher-risk pregnancies
There are a lot of things that can contribute to a higher-risk pregnancy and, surprisingly, the mother-to-be’s height is one of them. One report published in the journal Diabetic Management in 2015 revealed that women taller than 170 cm (about 5’7") were at a reduced risk of developing gestational diabetes compared to women under 160 cm (5’2").
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between 6 to 9 percent of women develop gestational diabetes and rates are highest among Asian and Hispanic women. Gestational diabetes increases the chance that the baby will need to be delivered by C-section, and swings in the mother’s blood sugar can lead to birth defects, preterm birth, and stillbirth.
Additionally, a study published in PLoS Medicine in 2015 explained that "shorter mothers deliver infants at earlier gestational ages with lower birth weight and birth length." However, there are some things that can prevent giving birth prematurely — one of the most important being seeing you doctor early and regularly during your pregnancy, according to Nemours.
Short men are more likely to lose their hair
Hair loss is a sad fact of life for the majority of men. According to WebMD, 25 percent of men begin experiencing hair thinning and loss before their 21st birthday while 66 percent have some degree of male-pattern baldness by age 35. And by the age of 50, 85 percent of men have "significantly thinning hair." But just because hair loss is common doesn’t make it any less difficult. It can affect a man’s confidence, self-esteem, relationships, and even his career.
One meta-analysis published in Nature Communications in 2017 found that those who were shorter were more likely to experience premature balding. In an interview with Science Daily, Dr. Stefanie Heilmann-Heimbach, the paper’s lead author, explained, "We were … able to identify 63 alterations in the human genome that increase the risk of premature hair loss. Some of these alterations were also found in connection with other characteristics and illnesses, such as reduced body size, earlier occurrence of puberty and various cancers." The researchers also found that prematurely balding men were more likely to have both heart disease and prostate cancer.
Does your height affect your mental health?
If you’re on either end of the height spectrum, you’ve probably gotten a lot of unwelcome comments and jokes about your stature. While being singled out for something you can’t control would upset anyone, can height inherently affect our mental health? It seems it may when you’re younger, but not so much as an adult.
In 2009, a study published in the journal Economics & Human Biology found that there was a small psychological benefit to being tall, especially for adolescent boys. The researchers concluded that "height is associated with fewer symptoms of depression among females 17–19 years of age, and among males 12–19 years of age."
Another study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, examined more than 74,000 adult men and women to see if there was a connection between either height or body mass and risk for depression or suicide. Heavier individuals were at increased risk of depression and decreased risk of suicide, but "there was no association of height with the incidence of suicide or depression."
Tall people are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease
According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, "Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms eventually grow severe enough to interfere with daily tasks." More than 5 million Americans live with this form of dementia.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease looked at genes associated with both height and the development of Alzheimer’s disease and found a number of overlaps. The researchers concluded that for every 6.5 cm (2.5 inch) increase in height, risk of Alzheimer’s was reduced by about 10 percent. They suggested that the same biological processes that influence height may also influence whether or not someone develops Alzheimer’s.
Nevertheless, Alzheimer’s is a complex disease involving both genetic and environmental factors. As a 2011 study led by Dr. Venla S. Laitala pointed out, adverse environmental exposures in utero, childhood, and adolescence can all contribute to cognitive decline in old age. After examining sets of biologically identical twins raised in different living conditions, the researchers concluded that "environmental factors exerted a greater impact on cognitive performance in shorter participants, whereas in taller participants’ it was explained mainly by genetic factors."
Shorter people live longer
In a lot of ways, vertically challenged people get the short end of the stick (no pun intended). Their height influences their risk for a number of health conditions, after all. But surprisingly, despite all of that, shorter people surpass tall people in longevity.
One paper published in Life Sciences pointed out that "shorter, smaller bodies have lower death rates and fewer diet-related chronic diseases, especially past middle age." The authors noted that this is true among animals as well as humans. There may even be a genetic basis for this.
A study published in the journal PLoS One in 2014 found that taller men were less likely to have a particular version of the FOXO3 gene. This gene is believed to help trigger apoptosis (the death of diseased or damaged cells), which is thought to play an important role in many diseases. FOXO3 has been nicknamed the "longevity gene" because certain variants have been strongly linked to a longer lifespan. The average life expectancy in the United States is 78.6 years, but if you’re short, you’ve got a better chance of sailing past that number into your 80s, 90s, or beyond.