Height and health – more or fewer risks for tall people?

Many scientific studies have been published on the influence of height on health, particularly in recent years.

Below we summarize their main positive and negative results, especially for tall people.

(+) Lower risk of cardiovascular disease

One of the clearest correlations between height and health is that tall people have a healthier heart and therefore a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than shorter people.

In 2020, Düsseldorf University Hospital analyzed the data of almost 660,000 patients. It came to the positive conclusion for tall people that for every ten-centimeter increase in height, the risk of a heart attack decreased by nine percent in women and 13 percent in men.

In another study, it was found that the risk of dying from heart disease decreases by 6% for every 6 cm increase in height.

One assumption for this correlation is that a genetic predisposition of tall people, which is associated with an increased risk of cancer on the one hand, protects against increased blood pressure on the other. This could trigger increased production of precisely the one hormone that helps the body to control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. 

Prof. Norbert Stefan, an expert in clinical and experimental diabetology at the University of Tübingen, is quoted as saying the following about the causes of the low risk of heart attack in tall people: „Fatty acids lower, LDL cholesterol lower, glucose lower and hepatocytes (liver proteins) more favorable.“

(+) Less type 2 diabetes

A study with data from 2,500 patients in Germany concluded that the risk of type 2 diabetes in men fell by 41 percent for every 10 centimeters of additional height and was reduced by 33 percent in women.

In the study, those with the longest legs had the lowest risk of diabetes, especially in men.

It is not yet clear why diabetes and height are linked, but one theory is that short stature may often be a sign of poor diet or metabolic problems. 

There is also research that suggests that genetic factors related to growth lead to less fat in the liver, higher insulin sensitivity, and therefore better utilization of glucose.

(+) Alzheimer’s less likely

Height can be an advantage when it comes to dementia risk, especially in men.

A study of 500 men found that men with a height of 180 cm or more had an almost 60% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than men with a height of 170 cm or less.

Tall women also have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. However, the correlation with height does not appear to be as clear for women as it is for men. 

(+) Less hair loss

A study of more than 22,000 men from seven different countries found that shorter men have a higher risk of balding.

Looking for changes in the genome that are responsible for men losing their hair prematurely more often, scientists discovered four genes that are linked to both male pattern baldness and height.

After the good news, here are three scientifically proven increased health risks specifically for tall people:

(-) Higher risk of cancer

Many studies have concluded that a person’s above-average height leads to an increased risk of cancer.

A study conducted in 2022 with data from almost 800,000 adults in Germany puts the increased risk of cancer at 11% for women and 6% for men for every 10 cm of additional height.

The World Cancer Research Fund International has quantified the risks for various types of cancer. According to this, the general risk for the following six types of cancer increases as follows for every additional 5 cm of height above the average height:

  • Kidney (10% increased risk)
  • Pre-menopausal and post-menopausal breast cancer (9% and 11% increased risk respectively)
  • Ovarian cancer (8% increased risk)
  • Pancreas (7% increased risk)
  • Colorectal cancer (5% increased risk)
  • Prostate (4 % increased risk)

Scientists cite two main reasons for the link between increased cancer risk and increasing height.

On the one hand, above-average height can be a sign of overeating, i.e. eating too many calorie-rich animal proteins at various stages of growth and development, either throughout life or before birth. This could trigger growth processes that make cells susceptible to mutations.

On the other hand, there is another, relatively obvious connection, which lies in the effects of size on the number of cells.

Matthias Schulze from the German Institute of Human Nutrition puts it this way: „Height can also be an indicator of the size of an organ. The larger the organ, the more cells are exposed to the risk of malignant transformation.“

(-) Risk of thrombosis increases with height.

In 2017, an analysis of data from more than 2 million siblings in Sweden concluded that men who were shorter than 1.70 m had a 65% lower risk of developing venous thromboembolism – a type of blood clot that forms in a vein – than men who were taller than 1.70 m.

The results of pregnant women of different heights were also analyzed, as pregnancy can be a trigger for this type of blood clot.

Those pregnant women who were shorter than 1.80 m had a 69% lower risk of venous thromboembolism than those who were taller than 1.80 m.

According to Prof. Norbert Stefan from the University of Tübingen, an above-average height poses major challenges for the venous system, as the veins transport the blood from the feet back up to the heart.

„The longer the tube, the lower the circulation speed, the greater the demand on the pump,“ says Stefan. The risk of congestion and thus venous thrombosis is therefore significantly higher in people who are close to two meters tall than in shorter people.

(-) More back pain and joint problems

Many tall people suffer from back and joint pain.

In an analysis of data from conscripts in Israel, the tallest men were 44% more likely to have back pain than the shortest men.

Tall women were 22% more likely to have back pain than short women.

One reason for this is the special anatomical and postural requirements of taller people, chairs and tables designed for other heights, and the higher center of gravity of taller people.

This not only increases the risk of falling but also causes the back and hips to hit the floor with greater force.

Conclusion: lifestyle is more important than height. Actively reduce specific risks.

When evaluating the study results, it is important to bear in mind that in many cases an increased relative risk does not result in a significant increase in the absolute risk.

For example, a relative increase in the risk of disease by 20 % increases the absolute risk of a disease with a general probability of occurrence of 15 % by only 3 percentage points to 18 %.

In general, the results of the studies show that the negative effects of height on the risk of disease and mortality are lower than those of the risk factors that can be controlled.

A balanced diet, plenty of exercise, not smoking, and moderate alcohol consumption have a greater influence on life expectancy than five centimeters more or less in height.

In addition, specific increased risks for tall people, such as thrombosis, back pain, or an increased risk of cancer, can be addressed relatively easily: 

Adequate exercise during long car journeys or flights helps blood circulation, targeted strength training reduces the risk of back pain, and regular check-ups for early cancer detection increase the chances of treatment in the event of a possible illness.

Given the many advantages of an above-average height, the increased risks for some ailments are manageable and can also be reduced. Life is beautiful!

Images by benzoix on Freepik

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