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Height is generally not considered a risk factor for disease, even if it has in the past already been linked to cardiovascular pathologies and even certain cancers, and many bone problems. Nevertheless, these epidemiological associations with height are likely to be biased, as the latter is partly influenced by environmental factors, in addition to genetics. Recently, American researchers have shown, through the largest study ever carried out so far on height and potentially related diseases, that tall people have an increased risk of peripheral neuropathy, as well as skin infections and bones. Surprisingly, they refute the link for other conditions like heart disease. These results could modify public health prevention strategies at the global level.
Scientists have known for some time that tall people are at greater risk of developing certain cancers, conditions such as aortic rupture and pulmonary embolisms. But what questions researchers is whether this correlation has a biological basis or is due to other factors.
Indeed, the height of a person in adulthood is partly due to genes inherited from their parents. But environmental factors such as nutrition, socioeconomic status, and factors intrinsic to the individual (including gender) also play a role in determining eventual height. This is why it is particularly difficult to determine a link between height and the risk of disease. Is it being tall or short that increases the risk of certain pathologies, or is it the responsibility of factors affecting height?
In this context, a team of scientists led by Sridharan Raghavan of Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in the United States set out to remove these confounding factors by examining, separately, the links between various diseases, the actual size of a person, as well as the height predicted by genetics. The results are published in the journal PLOS Genetics.
The world’s largest study on height and disease
To test hypotheses of a causal link between height and diseases, the researchers used genetic and medical data from more than 280,000 veterans enrolled in the VA Million Veteran program, including 222,300 “non-Hispanic white adults” and more than 58,151 “non-Hispanic black adults”. They looked at 3,290 genetic variants, associated with height, from a recent genome scan, as well as other personal characteristics. Knowing that previous studies have investigated no more than 50 traits, with much smaller genetic databases, the current study is considered the largest study of height and disease to date. Among the traits analyzed are, among others, measured height, BMI, but also genetic variations known to influence a person’s height, with more than a thousand characteristics associated with the disease.
They found 345 clinical traits associated with measured height in white patients and another 17 in black adults. Risk levels for 127 of these traits could be linked to genetically predicted height in white patients, according to the authors. As black patients are less well represented in genetic studies, less data is available on this population. But in this analysis, the researchers say that the clinical traits associated with height were generally consistent in black and white patients. It should be noted that these associations were largely independent of body mass index.
Conclusions consolidating previous studies
According to the research team, the results confirm previous findings linking greater height to an increased risk of atrial fibrillation — an irregular and often rapid heartbeat that can lead to blood clots in the heart — and varicose veins, as well as various disorders. circulatory and venous. They also found a higher risk of peripheral neuropathies, caused by damage to nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, particularly in the limbs. In fact, previous studies have linked height to slower nerve conduction and various nerve problems. On the contrary, a large size reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension and hypercholesterolemia.
In addition, this new work has demonstrated new associations between being tall and the higher risk of skin infections (skin abscesses, leg and foot ulcers) and bone infections (such as osteomyelitis), but also acquired deformities of the toes and feet due to the greater weight of the person.
Sridharan Raghavan, lead author, said in a statement: Using genetic methods applied to the VA Million Veteran program, we found evidence that adult height can impact over 100 clinical traits, including several diseases associated with poor outcomes and quality of life – neuropathies devices, ulcers of the lower limbs and chronic venous insufficiency. We conclude that height may be an unrecognized non-modifiable risk factor for several common clinical diseases in adults. “.
However, the authors conclude that more studies are needed to clarify some of these associations, as how diseases may result from genes linked to tall height is still not understood. In addition, future studies would benefit from including a larger and more diverse international population. Finally, the authors highlight the importance of height as a risk factor in the management of common chronic diseases, including diabetes mellitus and skin and bone infections.