When it comes to height, what counts as average? In the United States, the average man over age 20 is 5 feet 9 inches tall. U.S. women over 20 are 5 feet 4 inches tall on average. This varies from country to country depending on genetics and nutrition; the tallest men on average are the Dutch, who stand about 6 feet tall. Latvian women are the tallest on average at 5 feet 7 inches. The shortest men on average come from Timor-Leste (5 feet 3 inches), and the shortest women are Guatemalan (4 feet 11 inches).
Although these are averages, many people fall above or below the average height line. How does your height affect your health? For the most part, your height alone doesn't cause any particular health problems. But taller and shorter people are more at risk of certain health conditions. Read on to learn what health concerns are more common for taller and shorter people.
If you're shorter than average, you may naturally have a smaller risk of various cancers. Studies have shown that taller women are likelier to develop both ovarian and breast cancer. The additional risk of breast cancer is relatively small—it increases about 1.2% for every 4 inches. Taller women are slightly more susceptible to ovarian cancer. That risk increases by about 2.1% for every 4 inches in height. An elevated cancer risk for tall women was also found with various other cancers, including colorectal cancers, skin cancer, kidney cancer, and leukemia.
Taller men face their own set of risks. Prostate cancer risks increase by about 1% for every 4 inches in height, for instance. But that risk carries through to all forms of cancer that are not related to smoking in men. Indeed, for every 6 inches in height, men stand about .5% greater risk of all forms of cancer that are not directly influenced by smoking.
Why do taller people have a higher cancer risk? One theory is that taller people have more cells in their body. And since cancer results from a cell growing or multiplying chaotically, more cells might leave you at greater risk.
Are shorter people at greater risk of diabetes? It may depend on their overall body shape, according to some studies. In general, bigger bellies put us at greater risk of diabetes. But people with longer legs can afford somewhat larger bellies than shorter-legged people without an additional diabetes risk.
One study of about 460 patients with type-2 diabetes risks like obesity and high blood pressure found that those with shorter legs were less sensitive to insulin than those with longer legs. The researchers suggested this could be caused by poor nutrition during childhood. Similar studies in China and Brazil have affirmed the association between shorter legs and a greater diabetes risk.
Shorter people are at higher risk of heart disease and heart attacks. Your height isn't exactly to blame though—it's the genes at play. Roughly 180 genes contribute to shorter stature, and some of these same genes also leave you at risk of heart problems.
The shorter you are, the greater your heart disease risk will be. For every 2.5 inches you are shorter than average, your risk jumps 14%. If this applies to you, you don't need to worry. A healthy lifestyle can do a lot to improve your chances. Don't smoke, maintain a healthy weight and blood pressure, avoid so-called bad cholesterol (LDL), and exercise regularly to give your heart the advantages it needs to stay healthy.
Being taller seems to protect you from stroke risks. A stroke occurs when your brain's blood supply is suddenly cut off. This starts to kill off brain cells. Depending on what brain cells are damaged, strokes can have various effects. A person may have difficulty raising one arm or smiling with both sides of the mouth, or may have a hard time speaking coherently. Strokes can be minor or major, and major ones can lead to paralysis or death.
One study following more than 7,000 British men divided the men into four groups based on height. The men in the tallest group had a more than 50% reduced stroke risk compared to the shortest group. A similar study of 10,000 Israeli men found that for every 2 inches of height, a man's stroke risk is cut by 13%. Other studies of both men and women in Japan and other countries found similar results.
Here's a big health advantage for shorter people: the taller you are, the higher your risk of forming blood clots inside your veins (often your legs). The medical term for this is “venous thromboembolism” or VTE. It almost always affects one leg at a time, and can lead to swelling, pain, redness, and warmth at the VTE site. In the worst cases, this condition can be fatal when the blood clot breaks off and blocks blood flow to the lungs. If this is happening, you will experience chest pain, light-headedness, rapid heart rate and breathing, and sudden shortness of breath.
More than half a million Americans are affected by VTE every year, and of those, 60,000 to 100,000 are killed by it. Incidences of this condition are on the rise as the global population continues to grow taller. The reason taller people are more prone to blood clots is not established, but experts have offered possible explanations. It could be that because blood has farther to travel in tall legs, there are more opportunities for it to clot. Also, gravity itself could make clotting easier in tall people.
Shorter people get the short end of the stick when it comes to different forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. Studies have shown that both shorter men and women stand a greater risk of dementia, vascular dementia, and Alzheimer's.
Some of these studies point to the causes of shortness as the main culprit, and not shortness itself. Shorter people are more likely to have experienced malnutrition in childhood, which can stunt growth. This may also make dementia more likely. Another theory is that growth hormones protect against dementia in some unknown way, as other studies have shown that people with low growth hormone are likelier to develop these brain disorders.
A woman's height seems to contribute to how long she carries her unborn child. Women who are 5 feet or shorter give birth before they reach full term much more often than women taller than 5 feet 8 inches. The height of a pregnant mother may also help predict difficult deliveries. One study found that first-time mothers who are 4 feet 10 inches and shorter are much more likely to deliver their babies via caesarean. Shorter women also tend to have smaller babies. What about the fathers? One study found a father's height had no influence on whether a baby was carried to full term.
Baldness is a very common problem, affecting as many as half of all men by age 50. But if you're short, you're also especially likely to go bald. That's according to a study that investigated the genes responsible for male-pattern baldness. According to researchers, at least 63 gene alterations play a part in baldness, and several of those genes also contribute to a shorter stature.
Do shorter people live longer? It's complicated, but the best answer is “maybe.” There's a special genetic mutation that appears to allow certain mice, flies, and even some worms to live longer. It's commonly called the “Methuselah gene,” named after the Bible character who lived to the ripe old age of 969. For mice, this gene has been shown to increase lifespans by as much as 40%.
Scientists have known about the Methuselah gene for a long time, but it was only identified in humans fairly recently. Researchers discovered that people who live past age 95 are much more likely to carry this gene. This powerhouse gene causes your body to be less sensitive to a certain growth hormone, which also helps explain why people with the Methuselah gene tend to be shorter than average.
This doesn't tell the whole story, though. Some people are short for different reasons, including malnutrition. And some people live long lives for different reasons, including income level and lifestyle. Still, there's at least some chance that if you are shorter than average, you, too, carry the genes for a longer life.
When you work or play hard under an intense heat, being shorter gives you an advantage. Shorter people can cool down more efficiently than taller people. Why? It comes down to your skin.
The more skin you have, the greater your body mass. And the greater your body mass, the more body heat you generate. Your skin is also the location where sweat collects your body heat before evaporating. So your skin indicates how hot you're liable to get, and it is also the place where you cool down. Unfortunately for people with more skin (we're looking at you, tall people), your body can't cool down as efficiently as it heats up. So the more skin you have, the more heat you collect.
Although that's a big advantage to shorter people in hot climates, taller (and heavier) people have some advantages in the cold. That's because the bigger your body is, the more quickly you heat up, and the more heat you can retain.
Along with potentially living longer and avoiding cancer, another advantage of being short is your low center of gravity. Shorter people are less likely to fall down, and when they do, they're less likely to be injured. Simply put, shorter people are closer to the ground, which makes falls less dangerous for them.
According to one study, tall women (over 5 feet 8 inches) are more than twice as likely to fracture a hip during a fall as compared to shorter women (under 5 feet 2 inches). If you or someone you love is a tall, older adult, you should take special precautions to prevent falls. That means keeping up with eyeglass prescriptions, watching out for medications that cause dizziness, and possibly seeing a physical therapist for special balance and strength exercises.
If you find yourself on a waiting list for a new pair of lungs, being shorter presents a disadvantage. One study looked at the records of more than 13,000 adults waiting for lung transplants in the United States. The study found that people under 5 foot 3 inches wait almost 35% longer for their lungs than taller people. They were about 40% more likely to experience respiratory failure while waiting for lungs, and their death or lung removal rate was more than 60% higher as well. This problem affects women more, as they tend to be shorter than men.
Can tallness make your back hurt? The answer seems to be yes. Looking at 13,000 French men and women, researchers found that being taller than average was significantly associated with a higher rate of lower back pain and also a history of lower back surgery. The opposite was true for shorter people. Another large study of Swedish women found that their height could help predict future low back pain problems.
Does being taller help protect you from glaucoma? Glaucoma, the world's second-leading cause of visual impairment, is caused by pressure build-up inside your eyes. Several studies confirm that people's eyes are shaped differently depending on height. Other studies show that higher cerebrospinal fluid pressure is associated with a reduced risk of open-angle glaucoma, the most common type of glaucoma in the U.S. (Cerebrospinal fluid protects your brain and spine from impacts).
Taller people tend to have more cerebrospinal fluid pressure. Their eyes also seem to be better adapted to the kind of eye pressure that leads to angle-closure glaucoma, which can lead to sudden blindness and is considered more dangerous overall. So in both cases, taller people are believed to stand a reduced risk of glaucoma.
Even though their risks are reduced, taller people can still develop glaucoma. No matter your height, the Glaucoma Research Foundation recommends regular eye exams to prevent this debilitating disorder. People under age 40 should have their eyes checked every two to four years. That increases in frequency until age 65, when men and women are encouraged to get eye exams every six months to a year.
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