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Tall people have an evolutionary advantage? Maybe, maybe not

“Last week’s heart-disease study is far from another reason to want to be taller,” The Atlantic’s Dr. James Hamblin concludes.

Actors Will Ferrell, left, and Kevin Hart pose at the premiere of their movie "Get Hard" in March.
REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

A couple of studies involving height have made headlines in recent days. 

Last week, in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), researchers reported that they had found an association between men’s height and the risk of heart disease. Specifically, the study, which involved data collected from more than 200,000 people, found that for every 2.5 inches less in height, the relative risk of heart disease increased by 13.5 percent.

The other study, published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reported that tall men in the Netherlands have, on average, more children than their shorter peers.

But do these studies prove that taller men are healthier and/or more virile?

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The answer, of course, is no. Both studies come with all sorts of caveats. The NEJM study, for example, was observational, which means it can show only correlation, not causation. Other factors, not identified in the study, could explain the heart-disease risk differences between taller and shorter men.

And even if being shorter does increase the chance of developing heart disease (the study’s authors speculate that height genes may play a role in keeping blood vessels unclogged and healthy), it pales in comparison to other known risk factors, such as smoking, being overweight and not exercising. 

As one of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Nilesh Samani of the University of Leicester, pointed out to a BBC reporter, smoking raises the risk of heart disease “by 200 to 300 percent.”

As for the Dutch study, its findings may not be relevant elsewhere. In the United States, for example, men of average height (which is currently about 5 feet 9 inches) tend to have more children than shorter or taller men.

Contrary findings

Writing online this week for the Atlantic magazine, Dr. James Hamblin (a senior editor for that publication) helps put these studies in perspective. Other observational research, he notes, has shown that “while being tall can suggest evolutionary advantage in some places, it doesn’t in others.”

In fact, the longevity advantage may be with shorter people, as Hamblin explains

Compared with the taller northern Europeans, the shorter southern Europeans have lower rates of cardiac death. Swedish and Norwegian people are more than twice as likely as Spanish and Portuguese people (who are, on average, five inches shorter) to die from heart disease. In 2013 researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine published a study of 144,701 women that “confirm[ed] the positive association of height with risk of all cancers.” Another large study found increased risk of several cancers in tall men and women, and that taller people have higher rates of mortality from cancers. Palmer calls the fact that tall people die younger “an immutable physical reality.”

Over the decades, Americans have fallen further and further down the global rankings in life expectancy, now holding down a solid 36th place. The tall Dutch have perennially outlived Americans, but since 1970 no one has supplanted a very short country in the top spot: Japan.

The people of Japan’s Okinawan islands live the longest lives in the world. They have about seven times the rate of centenarians as do other industrialized countries, and the lowest rates of cancer and heart disease in the world — and they are even shorter than the mainland Japanese. The average Okinawan man is four-feet, nine-inches tall. 

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“Last week’s heart-disease study is far from another reason to want to be taller,”  Hamblin concludes.

And “when a tall person blocks your view of a concert, allow them their privileged vantage with a laugh,” he adds. “Death will come for them.”

You’ll find Hamblin’s article on the Atlantic’s website.