What Really Happens To Your Body When You Are Tall

Thanks to advancements in medical research, scientists have learned that height isn't merely a measure of how tall someone stands. Instead, it has turned out to be a multifaceted indicator closely tied to a person's health. According to a study published in Nutrition Reviews, a mix of genetics, lifestyle, and even diseases determines how tall you'll be as you grow from kid to adult. Genes, the instructions in your DNA, play the biggest role, controlling about 80% of your final height (via Medical News Today). Take Barron Trump, for example, whose towering stature of 6 feet 6 inches at only 14 years old never fails to draw public attention. This can somewhat be explained by his parents' height. His father, former President Trump, stands at 6 feet 3 inches, while his mother, Melania Trump, stands at 5 feet 11 inches (via Nicki Swift).

But genes aren't the only players; they are only the most prominent internal factor at play. Nutrition is the most important external factor, seeing that it not only directly influences growth and development but is also closely tied to disease prevention; by preventing disease, a growing person avoids the nutrient loss that may hinder growth. Moreover, height can act as a variable in screening for certain health conditions. Still, evidence also suggests a potential protective effect against other conditions. In any case, the study emphasizes the role of height as a determinant of adult health. This article looks at the potential good and bad things that can happen to your body when you're tall.

It may increase the risk of atrial fibrillation

Taller people have a higher chance of experiencing atrial fibrillation (AF), a heart condition characterized by irregular and rapid heart rhythms. For example, a 2021 study of 3,268 men who didn't initially have AF found that taller guys had almost twice the risk of developing AF compared to their shorter counterparts. According to a review published in the Indian Heart Journal, the connection between height and AF can be attributed to several underlying mechanisms, including enlarged atria (two of the four chambers that make up the heart), blood volume overload, and faulty electrical conduction in cardiac tissue, meaning that their hearts might not work as effectively. Consequently, the study warns that AF can lead to serious problems like stroke, heart failure, and even dementia. On the flip side, shorter people seem to be somewhat protected from AF because their hearts don't have to work as hard.

Nevertheless, another study published in Plos Medicine proposes a different theory, suggesting a link between genetics and AF, explaining that certain genes associated with being tall have also been linked to a higher risk of AF. These findings underscore the importance of considering factors like height in assessing heart health, which may help medical professionals take steps to reduce the risk of AF and its associated complications, as well as develop the best treatment strategies.

You may notice varicose veins in your legs

Varicose veins are swollen, twisted veins that often appear blue or purple and can be seen just under the surface of the skin, usually in the legs (via the Mayo Clinic). They develop because veins in the legs need to work against gravity to return blood to the heart. Yet, weak or damaged valves within the veins can cause blood to flow backward, leading to bulging veins. According to an article published in Circulation, varicose veins are a common part of chronic venous disease (which affects about 23% of adults in the U.S.) and include various vein anomalies such as spider telangiectasias and reticular veins. While some disregard varicose veins as a cosmetic issue, the costs of treating their complications, such as chronic venous ulcers, place a significant burden on healthcare resources, and even without said complications, varicose veins can markedly worsen one's quality of life.

While traditional risk factors for varicose veins include being female, having multiple pregnancies, obesity, constipation, a history of blood clots, prolonged standing, smoking, and high blood iron levels, recent studies have identified height as a potential new risk factor for the development and severity of varicose veins (via the National Library of Medicine (NLM)). Namely, a study of 400,000 people conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine found that taller people are more prone to developing varicose veins. While the link is still unknown, researchers attribute the association to genetics (via Standford Medicine News Center).

You may have a higher chance of developing thrombosis

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) happens when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, commonly in the legs. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most critical outcome of DVT occurs when a piece of the clot dislodges and makes its way to the lungs, resulting in a condition known as pulmonary embolism (PE). This condition can be life-threatening if it obstructs blood flow to the lungs. Traditional risk factors for DVT include vein injury from fractures or surgery, slow blood flow due to limited movement, increased estrogen from pregnancy or birth control, chronic illnesses, family history, age, obesity, or inherited clotting disorders.

Interestingly, taller height has been linked to a higher risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE). VTE is a broader term that comprises both DVT and PE. According to a study published in the Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis, this may be more common in adults of European descent and says that taller height might affect VTE risk through factors like more surface area in their veins, blood pooling in the veins, or damage to the vessel walls, than through clotting disorders. For instance, another study published in the same journal involving 4,464 patients found that men over 6 feet 5 inches had a 3-fold increased risk of experiencing a first VTE event compared to shorter individuals. Since height is not something you can change, it's essential to recognize its role in thrombosis risk, especially in combination with factors like prolonged sitting.

The nerves outside your brain and spinal cord may be easily damaged

Peripheral neuropathy is a condition that happens when the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord (known as peripheral nerves) become damaged (via the Mayo Clinic). The damage can be the result of numerous factors, including uncontrolled blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, alcohol abuse, vitamin deficiencies (namely vitamin B-12), infections like Lyme disease and HIV, kidney, liver, or thyroid disorders, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, exposure to toxins, repetitive motions, and a family history of nerve disorders.

Yet, evidence suggests that height can be a significant predictor of peripheral insensate neuropathy, a type of peripheral neuropathy affecting sensory nerves defined by the presence of one or more areas lacking sensation. As explained by a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, the length of the nerve fibers increases alongside height. Therefore, having longer nerves means there is an increased surface area that can be exposed to toxins or damage. According to the study's results, the risk increases for men taller than 5 feet 6 inches and women taller than 5 feet 3 inches. However, other analyses set the bar at 5 feet 9 inches.

It may increase the risk of developing skin infections

According to a study published in Plos Genetics, while the reasons are still unspecified, there might be a relationship between height and the risk of developing skin infections, such as cellulitis, skin abscesses, and chronic leg ulcers. Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that occurs when bacteria enter the skin through a cut or wound. While it typically resolves with antibiotics, if left untreated, cellulitis has the potential to spread to other areas of the body, posing deadly risks (per the Mayo Clinic). On the other hand, skin abscesses are painful pimple-like bumps filled with pus that also happen when bacteria breach the skin barrier (via Healthline). Finally, per a study published in Hindawi, chronic leg ulcers are open wounds or sores on the leg's skin that don't heal for more than six weeks and don't show signs of getting better even after three months of treatment. They can get infected if not treated quickly, and they usually happen due to poor circulation, pressure, or nerve damage.

Notably, the previously mentioned study suggests that a person's height may influence their susceptibility to these skin conditions, stating that as height increases, so does the risk of developing such infections. However, more research is still needed to understand the mechanisms behind this association.

You may have a higher chance of getting osteomyelitis

Osteomyelitis is an inflammatory condition that affects the bone and its surrounding structures due to an infection with bacteria, fungi, or other microorganisms, and research has suggested a potential link between increased height and the risk of developing it, as stated in a study published in Plos Genetics. Per the NLM, these infections can occur through various means, including spreading through the bloodstream, surgical procedures, or fractures, and they tend to affect larger bones in children but smaller bones (e.g., the vertebrae) in adults.

Certain factors, such as having an artificial joint, blood infections, diabetes, metal implants in bones, bedsores, recent bone fractures or surgeries, traumatic injuries, or a weakened immune system, can increase the risk of osteomyelitis (via the Cleveland Clinic), and its treatment can range from the simple use of antibiotics or antifungals to bone surgery to clean the affected area. While the exact association between height and bone infections remains uncertain, osteomyelitis is often linked with vascular problems (via the NLM), a series of conditions that taller individuals may be more prone to. However, further research is needed to fully understand the relationship between height and the risk of developing such infections.

You may have a reduced risk of dementia

Dementia is a degenerative brain condition that affects over 55 million people around the world, with Alzheimer's disease standing as the most prevalent form (via the World Health Organization). It is characterized by impairments in memory, thinking, and daily functioning, and it only worsens with time. Nevertheless, research has shed light on a potential association between being taller and a lower risk of the disease. A study published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry revealed an intriguing inverse relationship between height and dementia in nearly 1,900 men aged 76 to 95, suggesting that taller people may be less susceptible to cognitive decline (a.k.a. loss of brain-related abilities) in later life.

According to the study, dementia tends to be linked to childhood experiences, like not having access to enough food or a good education. These experiences offer a potential explanation because they affect both how tall you grow and how well your brain develops, potentially predisposing shorter individuals to a higher risk of dementia. Moreover, a second explanation highlights the association between growth hormone (GH) levels, height, and brain development, explaining that cognitive impairment has been linked to GH deficiency in other studies.

Your risk of having high blood pressure might be lower

A study published in Medicine examining nearly 13,000 men and women has revealed intriguing insights into the relationship between height and high blood pressure, an association that was first noted in the 1950s but whose cause still remained largely unknown. The study found that starting in their 40s, shorter people tend to have higher systolic blood pressure (the first number of blood pressure readings) compared to taller people, and that the difference became more noticeable as people got older. This association might be caused because shorter people may have hemodynamic challenges (aka blood flow-related issues) that taller people don't.

On the one hand, shorter people may have smaller heart artery diameters, which directly affects blood pressure. On the other hand, arteries in shorter people tend to become stiffer earlier in life. This is explained by the fact that substances in the body that help with growth, like insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), play a role in arterial health by stimulating elastin production in the aorta (one of your main blood vessels). Elastin is a protein that helps maintain artery flexibility. Thus, lower IGF-1 levels could lead to reduced elastin levels and stiffer arteries, potentially contributing to high blood pressure in shorter individuals.

It may lower the risk of coronary artery disease

Coronary artery disease (CAD) stands as the most prevalent type of heart disease in the U.S. (via the CDC). It happens when plaque, made mostly out of cholesterol, builds up in the arteries. Over time, this plaque buildup narrows the arteries, restricting and potentially blocking blood flow, which could be fatal. Yet, surprisingly, taller people may have an advantage when it comes to CAD. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, height and other body measurements are directly linked to the size of your heart's arteries. This means that shorter people may have smaller arteries compared to taller people. As a result, even a lesser amount of plaque in shorter people's arteries could lead to a higher likelihood of developing CAD. Additionally, the study says that a shorter stature is associated with other risk factors for CAD, such as high blood pressure, high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, and diabetes.

Additionally, another study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology also found that taller folks tend to have lower levels of body fat, triglycerides, and cholesterol and better lung function, all of which contribute to a protective effect against CAD. In fact, the study determined that for every two-inch increase in height, there's a 10% reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), a type of CAD.

You might be less likely to have diabetes

When it comes to the risk of developing type 2 diabetes (T2D), being taller could play a protective role, as research has shown that shorter adults tend to face higher risks of T2D compared to their taller counterparts. For instance, a study published in Diabetologia involving over 27,000 people found that for every 10 centimeters of height difference, the risk of T2D decreased by more than 30%. The reasons behind this association aren't entirely clear. However, researchers have observed that taller people often have greater insulin sensitivity, the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar levels. Additionally, they tend to have more efficient beta cells in the pancreas, which produce insulin. These factors contribute to better blood sugar control and a reduced risk of developing diabetes.

On the other hand, the study notes that a person's height may reflect their early childhood experiences, which are known to impact their risk of developing diabetes later in life. This concept aligns with the Barker Hypothesis, which suggests that poor nutrition during pregnancy and low birth weight (both often associated with shorter stature) can lead to various metabolic issues in adulthood, including diabetes, insulin insensitivity, and heart disease, per an article published in the Handbook of Famine, Starvation, and Nutrient Deprivation.