Healthy Living: How Your Height Impacts Your Health

health, January 2020

Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD


The Long and Short of It
The average height for men in the U.S. is about 5 feet 9 inches. For women, it’s about 5 feet 4 inches. If you’re taller or shorter than average, you might notice a few pros and cons to your size. That holds true as your height relates to your health, too. While height — or lack of it – doesn’t cause any health conditions, studies show it may make you more or less likely to have certain problems.

Cancer
Some research shows that a below-average height may mean you have lower odds of getting some types of cancer. For example, a study of more than 100,000 women in Europe and North America showed that shorter women are less likely to get ovarian cancer. Another of more than 9,000 British men between ages 50 and 69 showed that shorter men had lower chances of getting prostate cancer.

Diabetes
The length of your legs may be linked to your chances of getting type 2 diabetes. Based on 5 years of data on more than 6,000 adults, scientists think tall people may be less likely to get it. It’s not clear why the two are related, but one idea is that short stature is a sign of poor nutrition or other metabolism problems before birth or during childhood.

Heart Disease
Scientists aren’t sure exactly why, but people who are shorter than 5 feet 3 inches are about 50% more likely to get coronary heart disease than those who are 5 feet 8 inches or taller. The reason may be poor nutrition or infections before birth or in childhood that affect growth. It could also be that your genes affect both height and your odds of heart problems later in life.

Stroke
This happens when blood flow to an area of your brain gets cut off. Taller people are less likely to have one, and this is especially true if they’re at a healthy weight. Nutrition and other health-related things in childhood that affect how tall you are may be one reason for the link.

Blood Clot
This can be a serious condition, especially if one forms in a major vein or travels to your lungs. Researchers can’t explain why, but studies show that the shorter you are, the less likely you are to have a blood clot in a vein. People who are 5 feet or shorter have the lowest chances of getting one.

Alzheimer’s Disease
Height may be an advantage when it comes to this type of dementia, especially for men. One study of more than 500 people showed that men who are about 5 feet 11 inches or taller are almost 60% less likely to have Alzheimer’s disease than those who are about 5 feet 7 inches or shorter. Taller women may have lower odds of it as well, but the link to height doesn’t seem to be as strong for them.

Pregnancy
Tall women are more likely to have longer pregnancies than shorter women. In one study, women who were 5 feet or shorter were more likely to give birth before they reached full term than those who stood 5 feet 8 inches or taller. And for every centimeter of difference in height between two pregnant women, the shorter woman gave birth one-fifth of a day sooner. Scientists aren’t sure why this is, but it could be related to the size of certain body parts, like the pelvis or cervix.

Hair Loss
A study of more than 22,000 men from seven countries showed that shorter guys have a greater chance of going bald. The scientists looked for changes in specific genes that can raise a man’s odds of losing his hair early. They found four that were linked to both male-pattern baldness and shorter stature.

Longer Life
Several studies over the years have shown that shorter people tend to live a little longer than taller people and have fewer long-term diseases as they age. Scientists are still studying the reasons behind this, but some areas they’re looking into include the amount of damage to cells over time, the levels of some hormones, and the size of some organs, like the brain, liver, and kidneys.

Heat Exhaustion
Shorter people are less likely to get overheated or have the more serious condition called heatstroke. This is mainly because taller — and heavier — people make more body heat. If they make it faster than they can get rid of it, like during intense exercise, that can lead to heatstroke or heat exhaustion. On the flip side, taller people can stay warmer than shorter people in colder weather for the same reason.

Lower Back and Hips
Shorter people are less likely to have lower back pain or break a hip. One possible reason taller people have a bigger chance of a hip fracture is their high center of gravity. That not only makes them more likely to fall, but it also may make them hit the ground with more force if they do.