Being tall has always been seen as a healthy and advantageous quality; the taller pre-civilization man would have been able to reach higher-hanging fruits in times of scarcity, a perfect example of “survival of the fittest”. Taller gladiators, with greater muscle bulk, in early civilization would have won more duels, attracting more belladonnas to perpetuate their lineage. Today, we equate height to beauty and progress. Even a nation’s wealth can be deduced from the height of its citizens (poorer populations are chronically malnourished and therefore stunted). Whether as cause or effect, the short man seems to be at a disadvantage more often than not.
Unfortunately, there is more bad news for short people.
Researchers at the University of Leicester have found that short stature is a predisposing factor for coronary heart disease (also known as coronary artery disease). Even though it has been known for decades that short stature and heart disease were related, it was always thought that factors like poor childhood nutrition and poverty, which lead to short stature, were more to blame. But findings from this study show that, “the association between shorter height and higher risk of coronary heart disease is a primary relationship and is not due to confounding factors such as nutrition or poor socioeconomic conditions.” says Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Professor of Cardiology at the University of Leicester, and lead author of the study.
The research, which studied over 180 genes linked to height, showed that every 2.5 inches change in height affected one’s risk of coronary heart disease by 13.5%. That is to say a 5-feet tall person on average has a 64% higher risk of coronary heart disease than a 6 footer based on the height variable alone.
This research has generated a lot of interest in the medical fraternity because coronary artery disease is the leading cause of premature death in the world, and according to the WHO, Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), the most common of which is coronary artery disease, are the number 1 cause of death globally: more people die annually from CVDs than from any other cause. In Ghana, over 10,000 people die annually from coronary heart disease, making it one of the top 5 causes of death in the country.
Coronary heart disease occurs when the vessels that supply blood to the heart become clogged with a cholesterol-rich substance called plaque. This blockage reduces the amount of blood flowing to the heart and can lead to a range of symptoms from mild chest pain to sudden death. The traditional risk factors for developing it are increasing age, male sex, smoking, physical inactivity, obesity, high blood pressure and poorly controlled Diabetes Mellitus. Treatment typically involves lifestyle modifications and medication, and sometimes surgical intervention.
This research from the University of Leicester, though it may not have any immediate clinical implications opens up new ways of thinking that may help in the prevention and treatment of this disease.
It must be noted though that the findings from this study is not a license to tall folks to live on the edge, nor should it make short individuals worry unduly about their health. By the way, it is not all rosy for tall individuals: it has recently been found that height increases the risk for cancer.
Whether short or tall, we all need to live healthy lifestyles to give us the best chance of preventing chronic illnesses. Living a healthy lifestyle means:
- Avoid smoking: One’s risk for cardiovascular disease is increased 2-4 times (200 to 400%) if they smoke, a high risk which no advantage of height can offset. Also, apart from heart disease, many other diseases, from chronic airway diseases to cancers, can also afflict the smoker. Smoking should be avoided totally.
- Exercise regularly: 30 minutes of aerobic (cardio) exercise per day, 4 to 5 times per week, will put you miles ahead of many chronic illnesses, including heart disease. Apart from scheduled exercise, being more active, rather than sedentary, during your work-day also helps to keep you healthy.
- Drink alcohol in moderation: If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. This means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. (A drink is one mini (330mls) beer, a glass (150mls) of wine, or a shot (50mls) of spirit). Anything beyond this is unhealthy and portends pernicious health effects for the consumer.
- Eat a healthy diet: This means half your plate should be made of assorted fruits and vegetables, with the other half shared equally between carbohydrates (banku, fufu, yam, gari, rice, pasta, etc.) and healthy protein (fish, lean meat, poultry, beans, nuts). Also avoid excessive amounts of refined sugars and processed foods and use little to no oils for cooking (extra-virgin olive oil is a healthy option though).
There are many factors that affect our health. Some of these factors, like age, sex and height are not modifiable and thus out of our control. Others, and fortunately the vast majority, lie in our control. A 5 foot man who exercises regularly, eats healthily and avoids smoking likely has a less risk of cardiovascular disease than a physically inactive, obese, 6 foot woman with a 20 year history of chain-smoking and alcohol abuse.
You have a great deal of power to determine how healthy or otherwise you are. It starts with living a healthy lifestyle. Talk to your doctor to discuss your risks and to help you map out a plan to beat this menace called coronary heart disease.