Not long ago I passed a tall man in the grocery store and almost stopped him to say, "Excuse me, you have a 24 percent lower risk for heart failure because of your height." I consider a potential faux pas like this an occupational hazard now that I have taken on the challenge of blogging about hearts 29 days in a row during American Heart Month.
It's true, though, about the height thing.
According to a recent report published in the American Journal of Cardiology, men 6 feet tall and taller are 24 percent less likely than shorter men -- 5 feet 8 inches and shorter -- to report a diagnosis of heart failure. Men in between those heights experience proportional risks correlating to height.
Surprisingly, some news stories misrepresented the significance of the findings -- lacking any mention of gravity's effect on the cardiovascular system.
In this first study on the relationship between height and heart failure there was no silver lining for shorter folks. The heart is the only muscle in the body that never rests. Heart failure is when a heart is no longer strong enough to pump blood through the body or doesn't relax sufficiently between beats to do its job (Elizabeth Taylor was one of its most notorious sufferers). Several previous studies, including Walker, et. al.'s British Regional Heart study, had already found shorter people were about twice as likely as taller people to experience heart attack, a blockage of blood flow to the heart that results in the death of heart muscle (also known as myocardial infarction).
Along with his colleagues, Principal Investigator for the Physicians' Heart Study (PHS) Luc Djoussé, M.D., ScD. of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that the taller the men, the lower their odds of heart failure. The data were collected from 22,042 male doctors over a period of 22 years, beginning when most of the men were in their early 50s. Statistical adjustments were made for participants' weight, age, hypertension and for those with diabetes.
In plain language, gravity has major effects on the cardiovascular system of an upright person and -- for reasons you will have to go to medical school to understand -- gravity's effects are really great for tall people and improve proportionately with height. More on sitting and sedentary people on Day Two of this 29-day heart blog marathon.
Height is largely genetically determined but also sensitive to the effects of socio-economic factors like poor nutrition or inadequate health care. While the docs in the study may have had similar incomes as practicing physicians, as children their social and economic backgrounds may have differed significantly and contributed to heart risks later in life. Djoussé suggests that childhood infections may also stunt growth and lead to risk factors like high blood pressure and arterial plaque. Bad heart genetics or misuse of steroids trump good height genetics.
In the midst of thinking about all this, I found myself watching a sporting event next to a seated guy who looked like he might be tall. This time I couldn't hold back. Sure enough, he had played basketball and was 6 feet 5 inches tall.
I gave him the good news about his lowered risk for heart disease. He was really happy, and turned out to be a biochemistry professor from Boston University researching advanced detection of proteins in the blood that will one day sound the alarm for coronary heart disease much earlier in life than the C-reactive protein (CRP) biomarkers on which we currently rely. Go figure.
Since the PHS study began before women's risks were widely recognized, women weren't included. A more recent Brigham study reveals some interesting measurements: A woman 5 feet 4.5 inches tall who weighs 137 to 145 pounds is 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack than a woman of the same height who weighs less than 125 pounds.
"In women approximately 30 percent or more over ideal weight, 70 percent of all heart attacks could be traced to obesity," according to author Lynda E. Rosenfeld, M.D. Another tip: A woman's waist size should be no bigger than 80 percent of her hip measurement.
Regardless of the short or tall of it, if you've had a heart attack -- and survived it -- please participate in the online Yale Heart Study at https://heartstudy.yale.edu/. The anonymous, NIH-funded survey takes 30-60 minutes to complete and will ultimately help shorten treatment times and preserve quality of life. If you haven't had a heart attack, visit the site and forward the survey to someone who has.
Disclosure: Suzanne O'Malley is a Senior Research Associate for the non-profit NIH-funded Yale Heart Study, a Faculty member of the Yale Writers' Conference & Associate/Director of Yale Summer Film Institute.
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