Published January 19, 2012
Tall men are less likely than shorter ones to develop heart failure, suggests a new study of U.S. doctors.
The finding doesn't prove that a few extra inches protect the heart, and it's possible that tall and short people are different in other ways -- including in their diets or diseases growing up -- that could affect heart risks.
Still, researchers said it's also possible that something about the biology of taller people -- such as the distance between their hearts and certain branches of arteries and blood vessels -- could possibly decrease stress on the heart.
"From a day-to-day practical consideration, it's not something we take into a big consideration when we're thinking about risk," said Dr. Jeffrey Teuteberg, a cardiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who was not involved in the new study.
"The message certainly shouldn't be: 'If you're tall, don't worry about these sorts of things, or if you're short, you're doomed,'" he told Reuters Health.
But the study does show that there's more to heart disease risk than the commonly-accepted culprits, he added, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Data came from 22,000 male doctors who were followed as part of a large study of heart disease and cancer, starting when they were in their mid-50s, on average.
After responding to an initial questionnaire that asked about their height, weight and health condition, men filled out follow-up surveys where they reported new medical diagnoses each year.
The current report includes information from an average of 22 years of that follow-up, during which 1,444 men, or about seven percent, developed heart failure -- when the heart isn't strong enough to pump blood to the rest of the body, or when it doesn't relax well after each beat.
Dr. Luc Djousse of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston and his colleagues found that the taller men were, the lower their chance of heart failure.
The tallest men in the study -- those over six feet -- were 24 percent less likely to report a heart failure diagnosis during the study period than men who were five feet, eight inches and shorter.
That was after men's age and weight, as well as whether or not they had high blood pressure or diabetes, had been taken into account, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Cardiology.
Even with those considerations, the study can't prove that something else wasn't behind the relationship between height and heart failure risk, according to Teuteberg.
One possibility is how rich or poor the study participants were growing up, and what their nutrition was like during key development periods.
"Despite its strong genetic determination, height is very sensitive to the influence of socio-economic influences on growth," Dr. Claudia Langenberg, from University College London, told Reuters Health in an email.
Even though this group of doctors likely ended up in similar income brackets, differences early in life could still be to blame for extra heart risks, said Langenberg, who has studied the effects of height and socio-economic status on heart disease but wasn't involved in the new report.
Djousse also proposed that childhood infections could both stunt growth and ultimately lead to plaque build-up in the arteries and high blood pressure, which are tied to heart failure.
Still, it's possible that height, itself, does belong on the list of heart risks.
A taller frame might mean that when blood is directed back to the heart at certain points in artery and blood vessel branches, it takes longer to get there or hits the heart during a less-stressful part of its rhythm, Teuteberg said.
He said that what's really behind the link is the subject for future research.
"As much as we know about the development of very common diseases like heart failure, there's still a lot we don't know. All of the traditional risk factors we think of -- there's still a lot more that impacts the development of those diseases beyond those things," Teuteberg said.
"This (finding) may lead to something much more interesting down the line."
Researchers agreed that at the very least, the findings shouldn't concern -- or relieve -- anyone based on their height.
"This study doesn't say anything definite about whether height, itself, is going to lead to anything," Djousse told Reuters Health.