Being tall at an early age could protect against heart disease and strokes, study finds

We’re constantly looking for markers which may protect us from diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

By the same token, discovering traits that worsen our risk of getting diseases as we age helps us to make plans to avoid them. Who would have thought something as simple as our height could be an influence for the good?

It turns out being tall from childhood could protect you against heart disease and stroke in later life. So says a University of Bristol-led study where the researchers analysed height and genetic data for 454,000 people.

We already had a clue from previous studies that suggested being taller may protect against heart disease, but whether this was a direct effect of height during childhood or a long-term effect of remaining tall into adulthood was unknown until now.

Researchers from Bristol Medical School used a statistical technique that allowed the scientists to separate the impact of childhood height from that of adult height on heart health. The approach lays bare how childhood and adult height and the risk of a cardiovascular disease are interrelated.

Using data from the UK Biobank study, the team identified genetic markers for childhood and adult height from the 454,023 people, and the genetic markers associated with five types of cardiovascular disease. These included stroke, coronary artery disease, peripheral artery disease, irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation), and thoracic aortic aneurysm.

From their analyses, results showed that people who are taller in early life typically have lower risk of coronary artery disease. However, new evidence from this work indicates this is likely attributed to people who remain taller throughout their lives – as taller children typically grow to be taller adults – and it’s adulthood height that is largely behind this protective effect.

On the other hand, surprising results from this study suggest being taller in childhood may increase risk of other kinds of cardiovascular disease, such as aortic aneurysm and irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation), irrespective of adulthood height.

Lead author Dr Tom Richardson, an honorary research fellow at Bristol’s MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit and Bristol Medical School’s Population Health Sciences department, said: “Being taller in childhood may have a long-term influence on increased risk of thoracic aortic aneurysm and atrial fibrillation in later life. “These results highlight a potential developmental mechanism linking childhood height and risk of these diseases which warrants further investigation by future research.”