Standing head and shoulders above the crowd has its perks – but those extra inches can come at a cost. According to a new study, being tall is fundamentally associated with a number of diseases, from varicose veins to peripheral nerve damage.
An international team of researchers compared measures of height, both genetic and physical, with the presence of more than a thousand traits in more than 280,000 US adults, confirming suspicions that height is linked with a number of common diseases.
"Using genetic methods applied to the VA Million Veteran Program, we found evidence that adult height may impact over 100 clinical traits, including several conditions associated with poor outcomes and quality of life – peripheral neuropathy, lower extremity ulcers, and chronic venous insufficiency," says the study's lead author, Sridharan Raghavan from the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in the US.
"We conclude that height may be an unrecognized non-modifiable risk factor for several common conditions in adults."
Scientists have known for some time that tall people are at greater risk of a variety of cancers, not to mention conditions like ruptured aortas and pulmonary embolisms.
Not that shorter folk have it much better, facing increased chances of coronary disease, stroke, liver disease, and mental health disorders.
What hasn't been clear is whether these health challenges are bound up in the biology of height in particular, or the result of environmental conditions such as poor nutrition or damaging sociocultural effects, which can also affect someone's stature.
Moving beyond mere comparisons of measured height and medical reports, this latest analysis made use of genetic data linked to the clinical records of more than 200,000 White and 50,000 Black adults from the US Veteran Affairs' Million Veteran Program.
Using a method of relating genes with known functions to the presence of disease, the team attempted to match thousands of genetic variations known to influence a person's height with more than a thousand characteristics associated with disease.
A similar comparison was also done based on measured heights, which averaged 176 centimeters (5 feet 9 inches).
Given prior studies using similar methods looked at no more than 50 traits, using far smaller genetic databases, the new analysis can be considered the largest of its kind.
The results back up prior studies that concluded taller people have it easier when it comes to cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and coronary heart disease, at the cost of being more prone to atrial fibrillations and varicose veins.
They also added a few more conditions to the risk list, including infections of the skin and bone, and a type of nerve damage to the extremities called peripheral neuropathy.
Thanks to the fact the sample size was so large, the team also honed in on the role gender might play, with asthma and non-specific peripheral nerve disorders being associated with increased height in women but not men.
Drawing tighter connections between numerous genes for height and various pathological traits makes it less likely we can point a finger at conflated environmental causes, or even the influence of body mass – but still doesn't explain how illnesses might result from tall genes.
Additional studies could help iron out the causation, identifying underlying biochemistry or pinpointing the way physical size feeds back into functionality of our body.
Future research would also help to bolster some of the study's weaknesses, by using more relevant genetic libraries that expand beyond a European ancestry and sampling a wider part of the population to include more from Black and Hispanic populations, non-veterans, and women.
There isn't much we can do about our height, but knowing how it relates to our health could at least help us remain vigilant about those things we can do something about.
This research was published in PLOS Genetics.