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A genetic study conducted by the US Department of Veteran Affairs’ Million Veteran Program (MVP) found a person’s height may increase their chances of suffering from several common health conditions in adulthood. This included a link between height and higher risk for peripheral neuropathy and circulatory disorders. As part of the study researchers analysed genetic and medical information of 280,000 veterans in the MVP, comparing the data with more than 3,000 genetic variants associated with height.
Dr Sridharan Raghavan from the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, who led the study, said the findings were “a significant contribution to understanding how height is related to clinical conditions from an epidemiologic perspective”.
He said: “The broad scope of our study yielded a catalogue 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.”
Although being tall appeared to protect people from cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and coronary heart disease it was found that atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart rate) was higher in taller participants.
And taller patients were found to be at greater risk of the majority of non-cardiovascular conditions considered in the study.
This was especially true of peripheral neuropathy – damage to the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, particularly in the limbs – and circulatory disorders involving the veins.
Dr Raghavan described the links between height and peripheral neuropathy as “particularly interesting,” while his colleagues confirmed that tall people often show the “worst neuropathy”.
Researchers linked predicted height to conditions such as erectile dysfunction and urinary retention, both of which are associated with neuropathy.
The study showed other conditions including cellulitis, skin abscesses, chronic leg ulcers, and osteomyelitis were linked to height as well.
And being tall appeared to raise the risk of circulatory conditions such as varicose veins and thrombosis – blood clots in veins.
Researchers also found height may increase the risk of other conditions not connected to neuropathy or circulation.
For example, toe and foot deformities, conditions that could be caused by increased weight bearing of tall people, were more common in people whose genetics predicted they would be tall.
It further revealed that height increases the risk of asthma and non-specific nerve disorders in women but not men.
Overall, the results suggest that height may be an “unrecognised but biologically important” and unchangeable risk factor for several common conditions, particularly those that affect the extremities.
Therefore researchers concluded it may be useful to consider a person’s height when assessing risk and disease surveillance.
However, Dr Raghavan believed more work is needed before this research can be translated into clinical care.
“I think our findings are a first step toward disease risk assessment in that we identify conditions for which height might truly be a risk factor,” he explained.
“Future work will have to evaluate whether incorporating height into disease risk assessments can inform strategies to modify other risk factors for specific conditions.”
The study found that risk levels of 127 different medical conditions can be linked to genetically predicted height in white patients, while 48 of those conditions could be linked to height for black patients – because there was less genetic data for black patients.
The results appeared in an issue of the journal PLOS Genetics on June 2, 2022.
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