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Short Men at Greater Risk for Heart Disease

Here’s one more thing to add to the list of ways to reduce your heart attack risk: Don’t be short.

Yeah, we know. As if you could control your height. Still, a new study finds a surprising link between some of the genes responsible for height and the risk of heart disease. And the evidence appears much stronger for men than for women.

Scientists have known for more than 60 years that there was a relationship between height and heart disease risk, but it’s been unclear whether this was because shorter people have smaller blood vessels or that perhaps their short stature was due to poor health or nutrition during childhood, lead author Nilesh Samani, a cardiologist with the British Heart Foundation at the University of Leicester, said in a statement.

So researchers decided to take a genetic approach. In the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, they analyzed the genes of nearly 184,000 adults, both with and without coronary artery disease (plaque buildup in the arteries supplying blood to the heart). They examined whether the 180 variations in genes that affect height were also associated with heart disease, “and we found a very striking relationship,” Samani told NPR.

The results showed that for every 2.5-inch increase in a person’s height compared with the height of someone else, the risk of heart disease decreased by an average 13.5 percent. For example, a 5-foot-6-tall person would have a 32 percent lower risk of coronary artery disease compared with someone 5 feet tall, the researchers said.

The scientists also found a “small but significant” association between shorter height and elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels, “which could explain a small proportion (less than a third) of the relationship between shorter height and coronary heart disease.”

This height-heart association was found in men, however, not in women, although that may have been affected by the smaller number of women in the study.

The study’s other shortcoming was its lack of racial diversity: The subjects were all Europeans and primarily white. David Goldstein, director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at Columbia University, called this “a serious problem for many studies of this nature.” Many more studies are done on Europeans than on other ancestry groups, he told NPR. Studies need to be more inclusive so that everyone can benefit, he added.

For those who are short, this doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to suffer from heart disease. Lifestyle choices, such as smoking, not exercising and eating an unhealthy diet, are still major risk factors no matter what your height.

And if you're tall, this doesn't mean you're off the hook either. Other recent studies have found an elevated risk of cancer in tall people, including postmenopausal women.

“The goal is to take the genes you have been given and put them in the best possible environment,” cardiologist Andrew Freeman of National Jewish Health in Denver told Short or tall, staying active and eating more vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains “can have a huge impact” on reducing heart disease risk, he said.

Photo: inhauscreative/iStock

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