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Your Height Could Be a Factor in Disease Risk
  • Posted June 3, 2022

Your Height Could Be a Factor in Disease Risk

If you're taller than average, your genes may affect your risk for a variety of diseases, a new study suggests.

These include a higher risk for the heart rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation and varicose veins, but a lower risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Other investigators have reported similar findings before.

This new study found new links between being tall and a higher risk for nerve damage leading to peripheral neuropathy, as well as skin and bone infections, such as leg and foot ulcers.

But just because you're tall doesn't mean that you're destined to develop one of these conditions, said lead researcher Dr. Sridharan Raghavan. He is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Denver.

"Personally, I don't think a person should worry about their height as a predeterminant of their risk for medical conditions," Raghavan said.

The new study provides a catalog of conditions with which height may be biologically or causally related, he said.

"This is really a starting point for future work, first, for considering whether height can help identify individuals at risk for specific conditions and guide preventive measures targeting modifiable risk factors for those conditions, and second, for understanding the biological mechanisms tying height to clinical conditions," Raghavan said.

Those mechanisms are likely to differ for various medical conditions, and the new study may provide direction for future research, he noted.

Raghavan said that most conditions arise from a combination of factors. And while people can't change their genetics, many studies have shown that healthy behaviors, which people can control and modify, can be protective.

"Non-modifiable risk factors like height and family history might give us information about who is at risk for a condition, but they do not determine whether a person will get that condition," Raghavan said. "Modifying other risk factors is likely to still be helpful in most cases."

For the study, Raghavan's team collected data on more than 250,000 participants in the U.S. Veterans Affairs (VA) Million Veteran Program, looking at more than 1,000 traits and conditions among them. The data included more than 200,000 white adults and more than 50,000 Black adults.

Raghavan, who treats patients at Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., noted that growth and metabolism related to height are connected to many aspects of health.

"In some cases, the mechanism will be due to physical effects of tall stature rather than a biological process," he said. "For example, the association between height and chronic lower extremity venous circulatory disorders may be related to physical distance and different pressure in the circulatory system that impact taller individuals, compared to shorter individuals."

Other links may owe to biological processes related to both height and physiology, Raghavan said.

Todd Lencz, a professor at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y., reviewed the findings, which were published online June 2 in PLOS Genetics.

"These effect sizes are not huge," Lencz said. "This is not something that anyone should be reading and consulting their doctor about."

While the effect of height on developing a medical condition may seem significant across an entire population, Lencz noted the risk is small on an individual level and can often be offset with a healthy lifestyle.

The effect of height is "such a tiny amount that all sorts of other things are going to be playing a much larger role," he said. "It's still good advice for everyone to not smoke, and to exercise and eat right."

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about height and genetics.

SOURCES: Sridharan Raghavan, MD, PhD, assistant professor, medicine, University of Colorado--Anschutz Medical Campus, Denver; Todd Lencz, PhD, professor, Institute of Behavioral Science, Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, Manhasset N.Y.; PLOS Genetics, June 2, 2022, online

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