A person who is 5 feet tall has a 30 percent greater chance of developing heart disease than someone who is 5-foot-6, said a study published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.
To the surprise of researchers who had thought the notion a joke, an international consortium of investigators reported Wednesday that shorter stature increases the risk of heart disease.
After gathering genetic data from nearly 200,000 men and women worldwide, the investigators found that each extra 2.5 inches of height brings a 13.5 percent reduction in heart-disease risk. The relationship is present throughout the range of adult heights.
A person who is 5 feet tall has a 30 percent greater chance of developing heart disease than someone who is 5-foot-6, said a lead author of the new study, Sir Nilesh Samani, a professor of cardiology at the University of Leicester in England.
The study was published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine. The British Heart Foundation and other health groups paid for the work.
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No one was more surprised by the result than the experts, although they have known about a purported association between height and heart disease for more than half a century. It was first pointed out in 1951 by Dr. Paul Dudley White, a cardiologist who was President Eisenhower’s physician.
He observed that 97 men and three women who had a heart attack before age 40 and were admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital were 2 inches shorter on average than 146 healthy men.
Since then, experts have noted that shorter people are more likely to get heart disease in a variety of populations and ethnic groups, even after accounting for such risk factors as smoking and cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. But few researchers took the finding seriously.
Height was just a marker for some other problem causing heart disease, most scientists said — perhaps a poor diet, or infectious diseases in childhood that led to a lifelong weakness of the heart.
Samani and his colleagues realized that if there was a real link, genetic variations that resulted in short stature would also result in a greater risk of heart disease.
Previous research had identified 180 genetic variants that control height. To find out if those variants also affected heart-disease risk, Samani and his colleagues examined the genetic profiles of more than 200,000 people whose DNA had been analyzed in a variety of other studies.
Samani and his colleagues found the genetic variants associated with shorter stature also were linked to slightly higher levels of LDL, the form of cholesterol that increases heart-disease risk, and to slightly higher levels of triglycerides, blood fats that are also a risk.
Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, an author of the paper and director of preventive cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, speculated that risk may also come from poorly understood mechanisms, governed by height genes, that control the development of both blood vessels and bones.
Not everyone is impressed by the new report. Dr. Kari Stefansson, chief executive of deCODE Genetics, said the increase in heart-disease risk was real but so small as to be not very meaningful. “It’s a weak effect,” he said.