Can heights affect the risk of health conditions of people? A large genetic study by the US Department of Veteran Affairs Million Veteran Program (MVP)) claims that a person’s height may affect their risk for several common health conditions in adulthood.
The study appeared in PLOS Genetics. Dr. Sridharan Raghavan from the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, who led the study, described the results as a significant contribution to understanding how height is related to clinical conditions from an epidemiologic perspective,
Though the researchers maintain that more research is needed, Raghavan claimed that the results highlight the association between height and clinical conditions that impact the lives of Veterans, “The broad scope of our study yielded a catalogue of clinical conditions associated with genetically predicted height. In other words, these are conditions for which height might be a risk factor, or protective factor, irrespective of other environmental conditions that also could impact height and health, he said.
Height is not typically considered a risk factor for diseases. However, past research has shown correlations between how tall someone is and their likelihood of experiencing a number of health conditions. “What isn’t well understood is whether this correlation has a biological basis or is due to other factors, they said.
Though height is partly due to genes inherited from their parents, other factors such as nutrition, socioeconomic status, and demographics (for example, age or gender) also play a part in determining eventual height. “This is why determining a connection between height and disease risk can be difficult,” the researchers noted.
The researchers looked at genetic and medical data from more than 2,80,000 Veterans enrolled in MVP. They compared these data to a list of 3,290 genetic variants associated with height from a recent genome analysis.
Conversely, being tall may increase the risk of the majority of non-cardiovascular conditions considered in the study. This was especially true of peripheral neuropathy and circulatory disorders involving the veins.
Peripheral neuropathy is damage to the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, particularly in the limbs. Prior studies have linked height with i stower netve conducion and nerve problems. The MVP study confirms this link using genetic tools to suggest a higher risk of nerve problems in tall people.
The researchers linked genetically predicted height to conditions such as erectile dysfunction and urinary retention, both of which are associated with neuropathy. Conditions such as cellulitis, skin abscesses, chronio leg ulcers, and osteomyelitis were linked to height as well. Being tall also appears to raise the risk of circulatory conditions such as varicose veins and thrombosis blood clots in veins.
Height also may increase the risk of other conditions not connected to neuropathy or circulation. Toe and foot deformities, conditions that could be caused by increased weight bearing of tall people, were more common in people whose genetics predicted they would be tall.
The study also showed height increases the risk of asthma and non-specific nerve disorders in women but not men.
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, according to the researchers. It may be useful to consider a person’s height when assessing risk and disease surveillance, they say,
More work is needed before this research can be translated into clinical care, says Raghavan. “I think our findings are a first step toward disease risk assessment in that we identify conditions for which height might truly be a risk factor,” he explains. “Future work will have to evaluate whether incorporating height into disease risk assessments can inform strategies to modify other risk factors for specific conditions.”