A large genetic study by the VA Million Veteran Program (MVP) has found a person’s height may affect their risk for several common health conditions in adulthood. Significant findings include a link between height and lower risk of coronary heart disease, and a link between height and higher risk for peripheral neuropathy and circulatory disorders.
The results appeared in the June 2, 2022, issue of the journal “PLOS Genetics.”
Dr. Sridharan Raghavan from the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, who led the study, described the results as “a significant contribution to understanding how height is related to clinical conditions from an epidemiologic perspective.” More research is needed before the findings might lead to changes in clinical care, says Raghavan. However, the results highlight the association between height and clinical conditions that impact the lives of Veterans, he explains. “The broad scope of our study yielded a catalog of clinical conditions associated with genetically predicted height. In other words, these are conditions for which height might be a risk factor, or protective factor, irrespective of other environmental conditions that also could impact height and health.”
Height is not typically considered a risk factor for diseases. But past research has shown correlations between how tall someone is and their likelihood of experiencing a number of health conditions. What isn’t well understood is whether this correlation has a biological basis or is due to other factors.
How tall someone grows to be as an adult is partly due to genes inherited from their parents. But environmental factors like nutrition, socioeconomic status and demographics (for example, age or gender) also play a part in determining eventual height. This is why determining a connection between height and disease risk can be difficult.
Researchers find 127 medical conditions linked to height
To explore this connection, VA researchers looked at genetic and medical data from more than 280,000 Veterans enrolled in MVP. They compared these data to a list of 3,290 genetic variants associated with height from a recent genome analysis.
They found that risk levels of 127 different medical conditions can be linked to genetically predicted height in white patients. Since Black patients are less well-represented in genetic studies, fewer data are available on this population. But in this analysis, the medical traits associated with height were generally consistent across Black and white patients. About 21% of Veterans in the MVP study were Black. At least 48 of the links identified in white patients also held true for Black patients. All of the most significant findings – height being linked to lower risk of coronary heart disease and higher risk of atrial fibrillation, peripheral neuropathy and circulatory disorders – were found in both Black and white participants, according to the researchers.
May increase risk for some conditions, lower it for others
Overall, genetically predicted height was linked to both lower and higher disease risk, depending on the condition. Being tall appears to protect people from cardiovascular problems. The study linked being taller to lower risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and coronary heart disease. But risk of atrial fibrillation was higher in taller participants. These connections have been shown before in previous research.
Conversely, being tall may increase the risk of the majority of non-cardiovascular conditions considered in the study. This was especially true of peripheral neuropathy and circulatory disorders involving the veins.
Peripheral neuropathy is damage to the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, particularly in the limbs. Prior studies have linked height with slower nerve conduction and nerve problems. The MVP study confirms this link using genetic tools to suggest a higher risk of nerve problems in tall people.
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To learn more about MVP, visit mvp.va.gov.