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How Height Can Influence Health

Posted on Aug 20, 2013 by Sergio Ulloa ()  | Tags: Cancer, effect of height on health, Health, height, research, science

Recent research has confirmed previous  findings that taller people are more likely to suffer from some cancers. However, for a range of other serious conditions - particularly heart disease and strokes - the reverse is true with these ailments being more common among shorter people. The reason why height should be associated with these illnesses is far from clear and is the subject of continued speculation and ongoing research. The advice from the medical profession recognises that although as an adult there is nothing that can be done to change one's height, sensible lifestyle choices still allows you to reduce your health risks.

The latest research was undertaken  in the United States and results from an ongoing programme, the Women's Health Initiative, which monitors over time the heath circumstances for nearly 150,000 women aged between 50 and 79 and of whom nearly 21,000 developed some form of cancer within the study period.

Participants height was one of the measures taken account of and the results showed that overall for every 10 cm ( 4 inches)  taller a woman was,  her overall  risk of experiencing cancer increased by some 13% . This heightened risk was even  greater ( 23-25%) for some cancers - those of the kidney, rectum and thyroid included. The increased risk was evident even when the impact of other strong indicators of cancer risk ( ie smoking habits, alcohol intake and HRT) were taken into account.

These results confirm those obtained in an earlier programme of research in the UK which also found that there was a higher risk of a range of cancers among women associated with height. There has also been earlier research suggesting that both prostate and testicular cancer may be slightly more prevalent among taller men.

This earlier UK work  also concluded that the association of height and cancer risk was similar across nationalities and ethnic groups from all over the world. It suggested a connection between the general increased incidence of cancer through the last one hundred years while average height was also increasing - possibly 10-15% of increase in the incidence of cancer might be linked to this general increase in height of the population.

There is however, no suggestion that it is being tall in itself which ' causes' cancer and indeed there is no compelling explanation of why height and cancer should be associated. Cancer itself is in all cases the result of an abnormal and uncontrolled cell growth in certain tissues/ organs. One suggestion has been that the simple fact that taller people have more cells in their bodies meaning that they are a greater risk of this sort of exceptional and dangerous cell growth.

A slightly more complicated explanation recognises that people are taller as adults in part as a consequence of nutritional  factors in childhood together with a genetic factor which predisposes them to grow. This capacity for growth may be disturbed or re-emerge in later life bringing about conditions causing the cell growth that becomes cancer.

At present however, the only data collected includes very clear statistical associations between height and cancer and so much more fundamental research into the actual processes of cause and effect needs to take place.

However, there are also a range of serious conditions where the statistical association that research has uncovered runs in exactly the opposite direction with shorter people appearing more at risk.

This is the case with heart disease and stroke for example. A study from Boston published in 2012 found that men over 6 feet tall were 24% less likely to experience heart failure than were men of  less  than 5 feet  8 inches. A research exercise in Israel in 2002 found that a 5-centimetre (2-inch) increase in height led to 13% reduction in fatal stroke risk. The shortest men in the study group had a 54% higher risk of fatal stroke than did the tallest.

In common with the cancer research exercises, the assumption is that nutrition in early childhood must play a significant part - as that ( allied to genetic factors ) is the most basic factor determining height as an adult. But there is also the possibility that hormonal differences which influence height may also play their part in determining susceptibility to these conditions.

Height is also associated with the likelihood of contracting Alzheimer's Disease and experiencing senile dementia. A study of men has found that the risk of  Alzheimer's appears some 60% higher for men who are under 5 foot 6 inches than it does for those who are over 5 foot 9 inches. As Alzheimer's is also associated with cardiac disease, with its own association with height, there is some speculation about the extent of a three way interplay.

Perhaps the important issue to appreciate is that there is no suggestion that being tall either causes or prevents any of these conditions - all that has been identified is statistical association which itself almost certainly reflects both hereditary and environmental factors. As an adult, you can't make yourself any  taller or shorter but you can reduce your susceptibility by some simple lifestyle choices  -  cut out smoking, cut down on  alcohol, eat sensibly and exercise regularly.

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