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  • Researchers have long studied a person’s height as a potential risk factor for certain diseases.
  • Scientists from the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center found that height is linked to more than 100 clinical traits and medical conditions.
  • Researchers believe their findings can help healthcare professionals with disease risk assessment.

Over the years, scientists have examined a person’s height as a non-modifiable risk factor for certain diseases. Past research shows a taller person may be at a greater risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease, while a shorter person is at higher risk for type 2 diabetes.

However, much previous research has been unclear whether height was the main factor or if other factors — such as nutrition and environmental factors — were more the cause.

A research team from the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center has found evidence that a person’s height impacts their predisposition to certain diseases. Researchers identified some conditions not previously linked to height, including peripheral neuropathy and leg and foot ulcers.

The study appears in the journal PLOS Genetics.

Researchers examined genetics and height data from the VA Million Veteran Program database for the study led by Dr. Sridharan Raghavan, assistant professor at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Their data group included information from more than 200,000 white adults and more than 50,000 Black adults.

“Prior studies had used a method similar to the one we used — examining associations with genetically predicted height — and found interesting associations with cardiovascular conditions and with socioeconomic status,” Dr. Raghavan told Medical News Today.

“Since we had genetic data linked to clinical data in the VA Million Veteran Program and our understanding of the genetic predictors of height had expanded since those prior studies, we thought it was an opportunity to look for disease associations across a broader scope of conditions,” he explained.

Researchers examined over 1,000 conditions and traits and found that adult height was associated with more than 100 clinical traits, including several medical conditions.

For example, researchers observed a connection between taller height and an increased risk of developing leg and foot ulcers, peripheral neuropathy, and venous circulatory disorders.

When asked why a taller person may be at a greater risk for certain diseases, Dr. Raghavan explained it was not surprising to see fundamental processes like growth and metabolism — which are related to height — connected to many aspects of health.

“In some cases, associations that we observed may have to do with biological processes shared between growth/height and physiology,” he added. “In other cases, the connection/mechanism will be due to physical effects of tall stature rather than a biological process.”

Dr. Raghavan said the correlation between height and chronic lower extremity venous circulatory disorders might be related to physical distance and different pressure dynamics in the venous circulatory system that impacts taller individuals.

“The peripheral neuropathy association may similarly be something physical related to the length of the peripheral nerves in taller people and potential for injury/loss, but this is just speculation. The infection associations are further challenging to explain because they are also associated with other conditions that we found associated with height — neuropathy and chronic venous insufficiency. Future work will hopefully elucidate the mechanisms underlying these connections.”

– Dr. Raghavan

As height is a non-modifiable risk factor, how can these findings help healthcare providers with disease prevention?

“Our findings are a first step towards potentially including height in disease risk assessment in that we identify conditions for which height might truly be a risk factor,” Dr. Raghavan said. “Future work will have to evaluate whether incorporating height into disease risk assessment can inform strategies to change modifiable risk factors for specific conditions.”

“In other words, this would be a form of personalizing care that incorporates height into how we individualize risk factor modification or treatment — our study does not directly address this critical issue but hopefully provides a starting point of evidence for those future studies,” he added.

MNT also spoke with Dr. Medhat Mikhael, pain management specialist and medical director of the non-operative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, about this issue.

“Although height cannot be modified, the risks can be mitigated, so you can get ahead of the game and control the disease so that peripheral neuropathy doesn’t develop,” he explained. “Knowing that this person is at a much higher risk (helps detect it) early so you can treat it early, so it doesn’t advance and start developing complications, like ulcers, foot infections, and so forth.”

For the next steps in this research, Dr. Mikhael would like to see a follow-up on patients where height was considered a risk and who received early treatment to see if it made a difference compared to those without early detection and treatment.

“I also want to see if those patients can be followed and their disease controlled much better than the people that (were) not (considered) for that risk,” he added. “And see what is the difference in timing and development — could (we) have prevented the development of the complication of peripheral neuropathy altogether by controlling the disease and the progress of that.”