Hey shorty! Height and heart – how does that work?

I’m what you’d call average height for a woman – about 5’7″ in the old terms. Whilst I had always longed for a few extra inches, I’m actually pretty happy with my height considering the genes I got. You see my mum is tiny – just 4’11” – we were the same height when I was 12 or 13. 

One of my favoured and regularly read journals New England Journal of Medicine published an article yesterday online about height and the risk of coronary disease. Unfortunately, those with a little less height will be short changed in the coronary risk department. (Yes, it was a pun. I’m only a little sorry)

The study looked at some fairly complex genetic markers and so I thought I might try and unravel what they’ve said. 

So here’s the guts of it. The investigators looked at the genes of 200,000 people of European descent, specifically the genes that influence a person’s height. The people who had genes that meant they were pre-programmed to be a little shorter were also more likely to have coronary artery disease. But why is that? It’s probably related to the increased likelihood that these people were more likely to have risk factors for coronary disease, specifically raised levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. Both of these we know are risks for development of coronary disease. 

Genes are pretty complex. As is height. Being born with genes that make you tall doesn’t mean that you are exempt from having a heart attack. Even if you are born to be tall or slim or any number of traits, how you interact with your environment has a big impact on what actually happens to you. So if you’re leggy but smoke and live off burgers, your tall genes won’t save the day.

So what does this mean for your average Joe? At present, probably nothing major. If anything, the study demonstrates how complex genetics are when related to some diseases. It probably won’t mean that we will investigate shorter patients more aggressively. I think what we should take away from this is that you do not know what genes you have been gifted with. Your genes may protect you against disease or quite the opposite. Since we don’t know what we’ve got, taking care of ourselves should be paramount. Not looking after your body is a little like Russian roulette – having a heart attack is a pretty rubbish way to find out you got the dud coronary genes!

Reference:

Nelson et al. Genetically determined height and coronary artery disease. New England Journal of Medicine. ePub Apr 8 2015.

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