Study reveals how being tall affects health

The results highlight the association between height and clinical conditions.


Adult height has been associated with several clinical traits. It’s unclear whether this correlation has a biological basis or results from other variables.

Part of a person’s adult height is determined by genes inherited from their parents. However, environmental factors such as diet, socioeconomic status, and demographics (such as age or gender) influence eventual height. Establishing a link between height and disease risk can be challenging.

A new study by the VA Million Veteran Program (MVP) has found a person’s height may affect their risk for several common health conditions in adulthood. Significant findings include a link between height and a lower risk of coronary heart disease and a link between height and a higher risk for peripheral neuropathy and circulatory disorders.

Scientists explored the connection between height and health conditions by looking at genetic and medical data from more than 280,000 Veterans enrolled in MVP. They compared these data to a list of 3,290 genetic variations linked to height culled from a recent genome study.

They discovered that the risk levels of 127 different medical problems are linked to white patients’ genetically determined height. Because Black patients are less well-represented in genetic studies, limited data is available on them. However, the medical characteristics associated with size were relatively constant between Black and white individuals in this study. 

In the MVP study, almost 21% of Veterans were black. At least 48 of the links found in white patients were also found in black patients. According to the scientists, all of the most critical findings, height being connected to a lower risk of coronary heart disease and a higher risk of atrial fibrillation, peripheral neuropathy, and circulatory problems, were identified in both Black and white participants.

Overall, depending on the condition, genetically predicted height was associated with both lower and higher disease risk. Tall people appear to be less likely to have cardiovascular problems. Being taller was associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and coronary heart disease. However, taller participants had a higher risk of atrial fibrillation. The previous study has demonstrated these links.

Being tall, on the other hand, may raise the risk of the majority of non-cardiovascular illnesses studied. This was notably true with peripheral neuropathy and circulatory disorders involving the veins.

Dr. Sridharan Raghavan from the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, who led the study, said, “The findings on peripheral neuropathy are particularly interesting.”

When he discussed the findings with his clinical colleagues who regularly see patients with peripheral neuropathy, they confirmed that tall people often show the worst neuropathy. Still, they weren’t aware of other studies describing this association. 

Other problems include cellulitis, skin abscesses, chronic leg ulcers, osteomyelitis, circulatory conditions such as varicose veins, and thrombosis—blood clots in veins—Toe and foot deformities, conditions that could be caused by increased weight-bearing of tall people.

The study also showed height increases the risk of asthma and non-specific nerve disorders in women but not men.

Scientists noted“Taken together, the results suggest that height may be an unrecognized but biologically important and unchangeable risk factor for several common conditions, particularly those that affect the extremities. It may be useful to consider a person’s height when assessing risk and disease surveillance.”

Raghavan said, “More research is needed before the findings might lead to changes in clinical care.”

“I think our findings are the first step toward disease risk assessment in that we identify conditions for which height might truly be a risk factor. Future work will have to evaluate whether incorporating height into disease risk assessments can inform strategies to modify other risk factors for specific conditions.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Sridharan Raghavan, Jie Huang, et al. A multi-population phenome-wide association study of genetically-predicted height in the Million Veteran Program. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1010193
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