ScienceTaller people may have a higher risk of nerve,...

Taller people may have a higher risk of nerve, skin and heart diseases

Your height is determined by both your genes and environment, but the genetic component may also increase your risk of a variety of diseases


2 June 2022

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Being taller may have its drawbacks


Being taller may increase your risk of developing nerve, skin and some heart diseases, according to the largest study linking height and disease to date. The findings suggest that height could be used as a risk factor to prioritise screening tests for those at greatest risk of certain diseases.

Your height as an adult is determined by thousands of gene variants in combination with environmental factors such as socioeconomic status. Previous research has attempted to separate out these effects by using genes alone to estimate a person’s “genetically predicted height”, and linked this to around 50 diseases, but the links between height and many other diseases were unexplored.

Now, Sridharan Raghavan at the University of Colorado and his colleagues have analysed data from 323,793 former members of the US armed forces who had enrolled in a research programme designed to explore links between genes, environmental factors and disease.

The team looked at 3290 gene variants known to influence height and their association with over 1000 clinical traits. This confirmed that a higher genetically predicted height increases your risk of atrial fibrillation – heart palpitations – and circulatory problems. They also found that having genes linked to being taller was associated with a higher risk of developing nerve damage and infections of the skin and bones.

“We used genetically predicted height to identify conditions truly associated with height – in other words, conditions that were unlikely to be associated with height spuriously due to correlations with other factors that affect both height and a clinical condition,” says Raghavan.

The team then confirmed that these conditions had the same associations with the participants’ actual measured height, suggesting that measuring someone’s height could be a quick and easy way to determine their disease risk. The taller you are, the higher the risk would be.

“Genetically predicted height and measured height are well correlated, [so in the clinic] a tape measure would suffice,” says Raghavan. “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.”

“A potential implication of this study is that some health-related tests may be done more for individuals who are… very tall,” says Tamar Sofer at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, but she says more research would be needed before using such tests in clinical practice.

Journal reference: PLoS Genetics, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1010193

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