A person’s risk for a number of diseases also depends on body size – this is now shown by a new analysis by US researchers. There are risks, especially for tall people. But there are also little ones. What to look out for depending on the size.
Large or small, a person’s height increases their risk of certain diseases. This is reported by US researchers in the journal “PLOS Genetics”. Not only the genes play a role, but also socio-economic factors and above all the environment, as a German expert emphasizes.
People are getting taller: in 1896, the average height of German men was a good 1.67 meters; in 2017 it was almost 1.80 meters. For women, the value climbed from 1.56 to 1.66 meters in the same period – a development that can be seen almost worldwide.
At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a connection between body size and certain diseases. A German study in 2019 showed that short people have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, while a Swedish analysis in 2017 showed a higher risk of thrombosis for tall people. According to meta-analyses, they also develop cancer somewhat more frequently.
However, it is unclear whether body size itself represents the actual risk or whether there are factors that affect it. Therefore, a team led by physician Sridharan Raghavan from the University of Colorado has now investigated connections between various diseases and the actual height of a person and the height predicted based on their genetics.
Using a database containing genetic and health information, the team analyzed information on more than 250,000 adults for more than 1,000 diseases and characteristics.
The evaluation confirms, on the one hand, that tall people are at higher risk for
Tall people, on the other hand, have a lower risk of
Overall, there is evidence that adult height can affect over a hundred clinical characteristics, Raghavan said in a statement. Among them are several diseases that are associated with lower life expectancy and poorer quality of life. However, further studies must confirm that height is a risk factor for several common diseases in adults.
For Norbert Stefan, Professor of Clinical-Experimental Diabetology at the University Hospital in Tübingen, the result is no surprise: It has been known for years that numerous genes determine how tall or short a person becomes. However, it is precisely these genes that are not only linked to body size, but also to other processes in the body and are therefore directly or indirectly linked to certain disease risks.
“Nevertheless, genetics should not be overrated,” emphasizes the doctor, socio-economic factors could also play a role: According to studies, tall people often have a higher social status. This goes hand in hand with the fact that they are less affected by certain common diseases.
Environmental factors would probably have an even greater impact, says Stefan, referring to China, where body size has been increasing for years: “One reason for this is that people there are consuming more and more milk and whey products that contain the genes IGF-1 and IGF-2 activate and that already in the womb.” These genes would drive body growth and – once activated – remain active for life. IGF-1 promotes cell growth, which explains the increased risk of certain types of cancer in tall people.
However, stronger IGF-1 activation also ensures that fats in the organs are burned better. Therefore, fatty liver is less common in tall people, says Stefan, referring to his own studies. At the same time, because they have greater leverage due to their longer limbs and thus burn more energy with every movement, their risk of type 2 diabetes and heart attacks is lower.
However, long extremities also mean long leg veins – the blood has to be pumped a longer way to the heart, which increases the risk of thrombosis. Accordingly, tall people in particular should exercise regularly on long-haul flights or long car journeys, drink enough and wear support stockings on the plane.
In small people, on the other hand, there is a risk of
greater. And that regardless of the respective body fat mass: “If these people gain weight, their risk is significantly higher than for tall people who are getting fatter,” emphasizes the diabetologist: “The smaller, the more flexible you should be.”
Body size is a very underestimated topic in everyday clinical practice that deserves more attention, says Stefan: “That’s why works like the current study are so important.” Although there are already a number of such publications, in practice body size only rarely comes up cases have drawn a medical conclusion: “But as people are getting taller, this is a problem, because these connections will continue to gain importance.”