The ups and downs of being tall: more chance of cancer, less risk of heart disease

Height has a significant impact on the likelihood of dying from certain common diseases, according to research published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. The finding remains true irrespective of body fat mass and other factors. Previous studies have shown that tall people are at lower risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes but have a higher cancer risk.

Professor Matthias Schulze, the study’s lead author, said: ‘Epidemiological data show that per 6.5 cm in height the risk of cardiovascular mortality decreases by six per cent, but cancer mortality, by contrast, increases by four per cent.’

Height, which is largely genetically determined, has steadily increased throughout the world, particularly in countries with higher dairy consumption. That observation led the researchers to look more closely at the causes and medical effects of this increase in height.

The authors suspect that the increase in body height is a marker of ‘over-nutrition’ of high-calorie food rich in animal protein. They say a process could be taking place in people with such a diet that causes the body to become more sensitive to insulin action. ‘Accordingly, our new data show that tall people are more sensitive to insulin and have lower fat content in the liver, which may explain their lower risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,’ says Professor Norbert Stefan, the study’s co-author.

These findings fit in with published data that suggest that tall people have relative protection against disorders of the lipid metabolism, but an increased risk of certain cancers, especially breast cancer, colon cancer, and melanoma, the authors say.

The researchers behind the study say that height should be assessed when considering the risk of developing these diseases. In particular, physicians should be made more aware of the fact that tall people, although less often affected by cardiovascular disease or type-2 diabetes, have an increased risk of developing cancer.