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Is It Better to Be Short?

What do you make of the analysis showing that tall women are more likely to develop cancer? What could height have to do with health? I would love to know. I'm tall, and so are my daughters.

Answer (Published 10/22/2013)

Being tall usually is viewed as an advantage: in our society, tall people tend to have higher IQs and greater earning power than the not-so-tall. They meet and marry tall mates and have tall children. The height advantage usually goes to children raised by parents who can afford to feed their families well and educate their kids well, too.

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However, longevity patterns suggest that those who live longest usually are short. An article on this subject in the magazine Slate reports that "Japanese people who reach 100 are 4 inches shorter, on average, than those who are 75. The countries in the taller half of Europe have 48 centenarians per million, compared to 77 per million in the shorter half of the continent."

The new investigation showing that tall, postmenopausal women are at higher risk of cancer is interesting, because it found that the cancers in question were more associated with height than with body mass index (BMI), which tells you whether a person is of normal weight, overweight or obese and can be predictive of diabetes and heart disease. The cancers that the researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found most common among tall women include those of the breast, colon, endometrium, kidney, ovary, rectum, and thyroid, as well as multiple myeloma and melanoma. The researchers looked at data from 20,928 women participating in the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a 15-year research effort looking into the most common causes of death, disability and poor quality of life in postmenopausal women - cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. All the women participating in the WHI were between the ages 50 and 79.

In order to determine the validity of a connection between height and cancer, the researchers had to consider other recognized factors that can influence risk for the disease - age, weight, education, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, and hormone therapy. Once those risks were accounted for, they found that for every 10 centimeter (3.94 inches) increase in height, there was a 13 percent increase in risk of developing any type of cancer. There was a 13 to17 percent increase in the risk of melanoma and cancers of the breast, ovary, endometrium, and colon, and a 23 to 29 percent increase in the risk of cancers of the kidney, rectum, thyroid, and blood. None of the 19 cancers studied showed a negative association with height, the researchers reported.

But since there's nothing any of us can do as adults to influence our height, if I were you, I wouldn't take these findings personally. Chances are, you'll escape the cancer risks identified in the study. All any of us can do to bolster our odds of living long and healthy lives is to take the best care of ourselves today - and instill good health practices in our kids.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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