Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
31 May

The Connection Between Height and Health

growingboyHeight has historically been regarded as a marker of health and robustness. We seem to implicitly accept that bigger is indeed better, even if we don’t want to admit it. On average, tall people attain more professional success and make more money, the taller presidential candidate almost always wins, and women are more attracted to tall men. On a very visceral level, the taller person is more physically imposing. After all, who would you rather fight – the dude with a long reach raining punches from up high or the shorter guy with stubby arms who has to work his way inside your guard (although Mike Tyson did pretty well for himself with such “limitations”)? And on that note, who would you prefer as a mate – the physically imposing specimen or the shorter, presumably weaker male?

We in the Primal health community are quick to point out that agriculture reduced physical stature. Generally speaking, bone records indicate that Paleolithic (and, to a lesser extent, Mesolithic) humans were taller than humans living immediately after the advent of agriculture. Multiple sources exist, so let’s take a look at a couple of them before moving on:

According to one study on remains of early Europeans, prior to 16,000 BC, European males stood 179 cm tall, or 5’10.5″, and females stood 158 cm, or 5’2″. Between 8,000 to 6,600 BC, average heights had dropped to 166 cm for males. Heights fell even further in Neolithic populations, dropping down to 164 cm for males and 150 cm for females, only reaching and surpassing 170 cm at the end of the 19th century.

Another source found that Paleolithic humans living between 30,000 and 9,000 BC ran almost 5’10”, which is close to the average modern American male’s height. After agriculture was fully adopted, male height dropped to 161 cm, or 5’5.4″. Females went from 166.5 cm to 154.3 cm under the same parameters.

We know these changes to height also reflected worsened health, because with shortness came dental pathologies like caries, plaque, and decay, signs of arrested growth indicating instances of severe malnutrition, and skull abnormalities that stem from iron deficiency. People got shorter, sicker, and less healthy. Height wasn’t a cause of poor health, of course, but it was an indicator.

And that’s where the statistic of height shines – as an indicator. On a large scale, height increases indicate improved nutritional or socioeconomic status, while decreases indicate poor nutrition, famine, war, or economic hardship. Thus, as a population increases in height, it’s safe to assume that its people are either eating better, making more money, or both. If a population shows decreasing height (or stagnation, which the US is showing), we surmise that something is amiss. There exists no better modern day example of height following health than with North and South Korea. Several studies show that South Koreans are taller than their counterparts to the north. Since the two populations are so closely related, genetic differences can’t explain the discrepancy; it’s got to be environment, especially childhood nutrition. North Koreans are famously malnourished, and the height discrepancy between North and South – about three or four inches on average – is similar to the height discrepancy observed between Paleolithic and Neolithic populations.

There are numerous other examples. Up until the late 1800s, Northern Plains Indian tribes were the tallest people in the world, standing over 172 cm (or about 5’8″) and subsisting on a nourishing diet of wild game, fish, berries, and native plants. That height advantage disappeared with reservation life, of course. Fry bread, vegetable oil, sugar, and white flour mixed with extreme stress and economic hardship are poor substitutes for fresh buffalo and open plains. What about Americans, the ones who supplanted the Plains tribes? For most of the past two hundred years, Americans have been the tallest people in the world, until about fifty years ago when height began to stagnate. Today, American males stand around 5’10.5″, but we haven’t grown in decades and other countries have long since passed us. Meanwhile, European and Asian countries have steadily gained on us. The Dutch, whose men stand over 6′ and whose women stand over 5’7″, are now the tallest in the world. American males are ninth tallest and American females are fifteenth, and any regular reader of mine knows that the nutritional situation in America needs a lot of work. It’s no surprise that we’re stagnating while other countries with better nutrition are growing.

And yet for all the concrete links between a population’s height, health, and nutrition (especially childhood nutrition), some researchers have linked “excessive” height to poor health and longevity. Barring the obvious examples of short-lived people with gigantism and other endocrine disorders, there is some evidence that the shorter among us live the longest. Thomas Samaras, a height/health researcher, has authored several papers arguing that bigger is not necessarily better. In one, he reviews human and animal evidence and seems to present a strong argument, but others have argued that Samaras overlooks evidence to the contrary. While Samaras chooses to focus on increased mortality from non smoking-related cancers in the tall, he ignores the bevy of evidence showing that in industrialized nations, taller people enjoy more protection from all-cause mortality, including heart disease, stroke, and respiratory disease.

But what about those centenarians? As Samaras notes, they, along with nonagenarians (between 90 and 99 years old), are on average shorter than the rest of the population. The long-lived Okinawans are famously dimunitive, and it seems like every other Mediterranean centenarian in the news is a spry old lady.

I like one possible explanation for centenarians being shorter and slighter while enjoying better health and longevity: insulin-like growth factor, or IGF-1, a protein produced in the liver and stimulated by growth hormone that induces systemic growth in almost every cell of the body, including muscle, bone, various organs, cartilage, skin, nerves, and lungs. It even affects DNA synthesis and individual cell growth. IGF-1 is perhaps the biggest determinant of height in humans: in infants, IGF-1 correlates strongly with growth, IGF-1 is highest during growth spurts in pre-teens and teens, and higher levels of IGF-1 usually correlate with adult height. Clearly, enough IGF-1 is required for proper musculoskeletal development, but what about too much? Can you have too much IGF-1?

Staffan Lindeberg thinks that excessive serum levels of IGF-1 from diet-induced hyperinsulinemia are causing unhealthy amounts of growth, which manifest as higher rates of cancer and, yes, height, in Western populations. Simply put, Lindeberg agrees that a population’s height is an indicator of health, but only to a point, after which it indicates excessive and potentially problematic levels of IGF-1. There’s probably something to this; female centenarians are more likely to have an IGF-1 receptor mutation that results in elevated serum levels of IGF-1 while reducing IGF-1 receptor activity. In other words, the body was producing more IGF-1 to make up for the lack of receptor activity. This same receptor mutation has been linked to longevity in multiple animal models resulting in higher serum IGF-1 and lower IGF-1 receptor activity – just like in the human centenarians. In male and female offspring of the centenarians, however, only females showed elevated serum levels. Male offspring had similar IGF-1 levels to control males (those with no familial history of longevity). Female offspring were also 2.5 cm shorter than control females; male offspring were of similar height to control males. Perhaps short stature is more beneficial to women?

Maybe so. Gavrilova looked at draft cards filled out by 30 year-old Americans who would eventually grow up to become centenarians and analyzed the differences between the physical stats of those who would eventually grow up to become centenarians and those who didn’t. While obesity (or “stoutness,” as it was called back then) had strong negative links to longevity, height did not. The group of future centenarians was mostly people of medium height. Being soldiers, however, these were exclusively males. According to the IGF-1 receptor mutation study, only in females is the mutation linked to lower heights and greater longevity.

Overall, though? Height is linked to a population’s health and good childhood nutrition. In certain individuals, given certain genetic differences, short stature may indicate the potential for greater longevity, but not on a population-wide scale. Besides – barring pharmaceutical (or cybernetic) interventions, there’s not a whole lot we full-grown adults can do to alter our heights.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Share your thoughts in the comment board.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. All the 5’8″-ish women that call themselves ‘tall’….puh…uh…leeeeease.
    You’re not tall ’til you hit at least 5’10″…and even that I’d consider rather normal.

    Katzenberg wrote on June 4th, 2011
    • 5’10″ for females is not normal/average by any statistic data :) For men maybe (I think the overall averaga is an inch lower) but for women ? No way.

      Daren wrote on June 6th, 2011
    • 5’10″ for females is not normal/average by any statistic data :) For men maybe (I think the overall average is an inch lower) but for women ? No way.

      Daren wrote on June 6th, 2011
      • I didn’t say 5’10 was average or normal.
        I said 5’10” is the beginning of tall. All those women that are 5’8 and under are not tall, they’re average/normal.
        If you’re female and 5’7 you’re not tall.

        Katzenberg wrote on June 18th, 2011
  2. As a male I have NO desire to possibly live longer by being shorter. I count my 6’3″ height as a real blessing in life, especially, ahem, mate selection. And even though my genetics (and paleo diet!) indicate I will live into my 90’s or longer, I have no desire to necessarily fulfill that destiny. Long life is highly overrated.

    And folks, stop it with the personal anecdotes of some relative or distant population. Absolutely of no scientific value. Too many variables, n-1 is not statistically valid.

    Paul Verizzo wrote on June 6th, 2011
    • Being over six feet does not make it easier to find a mate, personality and physical attractiveness do. I will admit though that you may have more choices being at least taller than 5’10”. My brother is 5’9″, is very good looking, and has a great personality, his girlfriend is HOT and stands at 6 feet. She’s also one of the coolest girls I’ve met. Maybe that’s part of it, all those convential insecure women out there. These types of women make it hard for any man that want a woman with a personality that isn’t caddy and superficial to find a mate. There are waaay too many of them out there. I’ll admit, there’s a lot of boring closed minded deuchebag men out there too, so maybe the population matches up just fine.

      Long life is overrated if you are aging and deteriorating at a rapid rate. I, like Mark and many others, hope to keep feeling good and functioning at a high enough level to enjoy life for a long time. We may see some therapies develop that allow us to do this in our lifetime. In the meantime, we simply take great care of ourselves, choose our supplements wisely, and have as much fun as possible.

      morgan wrote on June 8th, 2011
  3. I wonder why according to the evolutionary way of looking at mating or attraction, women are suppose to like taller men and men are worried about other traits in women.
    My husband likes tall women, lucky for me, and I like stocky, muscular guys (even when they are only five feet seven inches tall. (Lucky for him.)

    I know -it’s anecdotal so it doesn’t count. But on the health related stuff a lot of times people say use your own experience to tell you what’s true about your body.

    I like paleo/ primal explanations for food, but I’m skeptical of the claims about attraction. I suppose I think culture disrupts these things to a certain extent – and not always in a negative way. For example, my girlfriends and I think that humor is a really important characteristic in choosing a partner.

    Also – how does the evolutionary way of thinking about mates and attraction account for homosexuality?
    Just wondering.

    tbirdies wrote on June 8th, 2011
    • On that last point, there are a few theories and only some evidence. On the evidence, twin and sibling studies show that there is a hereditary component to homosexuality, but that it is not completely determining (e.g., identical twins share the same orientation more often than randomly, but they don’t always share it). So the theories have to account for that and also explain why it doesn’t breed out over time anyway. But there are still different possible reasons, and the evidence isn’t enough to show which (or which combination) is right, if any. Here are some, with the first one being the currently most popular:-

      – There is something hereditary that makes women more attractive and also more likely to breed, that can show up in men as homosexuality. The breeding out effect of the latter would be overwhelmed by the advantage of the former, so maintaining the trait(s). Con: this doesn’t explain lesbians (so it can’t be the whole story). Pro: there are more male than female homosexuals (so it could still be part of the story).

      – Evolution simply hasn’t caught up with modern lifestyles yet. Traits that now produce non-breeding homosexuality might not have been non-breeding traits under other circumstances. E.g., many tribes have age segregation, with women and breeding reserved for the elders and young men indulging in other ways (if at all). It is quite plausible that homosexuals would breed better than heterosexuals under those circumstances, since they wouldn’t get killed fighting for/stressing out over women while they waited, and as elders with lower sex drive but under cultural pressure (including an incentive to have descendants to support them in old age) they might be able to mate with women because of being less distracted by then. Of course, there is no ethical way to study this.

      – Having non-breeding but supportive uncles might have helped children make it through a high mortality childhood, so encouraging traits that provided such uncles.

      That’s not an exhaustive list, of course.

      P.M.Lawrence wrote on June 9th, 2011
  4. A 6’5″ man will usually have a much larger penis than a 5’8″ manlet.

    Women like large penises.

    A 6’5″ man will usually be happier than a 5’8″ manlet.

    Reality wrote on June 17th, 2011
  5. I’m a Dinarid and proud of it.
    Tall and slender.
    Longer legs than upper body ratio. Oval face with narrower mandible, pronounced cheekbones and a long neck. Tan easily to a golden brown, ashy dark hair that bleaches easily in the sun, green eyes with brown spots, no freckles.

    Like someone posted above there are 5 distinct races from within europe.
    Alpine, Baltic, Mediterranean, Nordic and Dinarid. The dinarids are the only ones with longer legs than upper body length. If you have the same length legs as upper body (or shorter legs than upper body) then you are not a dinarid and probably one of the other races or a mixture of them.

    All this has been proven by anthropologists and bones that have been recovered from certain areas.

    Nutrition might play a role in bone development (especially the facial bones and maxilla) but I don’t think someone could decline by 4 inches of leg length, or more, in 1 generation.

    Suvetar wrote on June 18th, 2011
  6. Milk does promote growth but Colin Campbell, a nutritional biochemist, avoids this food because it contains animal protein and insulin-like growth factor-1. Both promote chronic disease as well as increased height and body size.

    Professor Walter Willett, Chairman of the Nutrition Department at Harvard, recently reported that red meat and processed meats promote cancer, heart disease, diabetes and all-cause mortality. He recommends a plant-based diet with little sugar, salt, and simple carbohydrates.

    Dr. Campbell was raised on a milk farm and drank quite a bit during his youth. I drank 2 quarts a day while growing up and wound up about 6 inches taller than my father and mother.

    Researcher Silventoinen reported that the Western diet promotes both greater height and coronary heart disease.

    People who follow plant-based diets in non-developed populations usually don’t drink cow’s milk and rarely get the chronic diseases common in the West until they become Westernized.

    For more information on height and growth see my
    blog and website:

    http://samarasbodyheightweight.blogspot.com/

    http://www.humanbodysize.com

    Tom Samaras

    thomas samaras wrote on October 28th, 2011
  7. Big and tall, meat-eating American soldiers lost to small and short, rice-eating Vietnamese guerrillas from 1955-1975.

    Hồ Chí Minh wrote on December 2nd, 2011
  8. Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.

    Yoda wrote on December 2nd, 2011
  9. I’m Dutch and at 1.78m I recall always being among the 3 shortest guys (they were of equal length) in high school..

    My girlfriend is 1.77m

    I’ve got friends and colleagues whose *shoulders* are level with the top of my head. =( :S

    Ethan wrote on July 10th, 2012
  10. Hi Mark. Enjoyed your article and agree that we can’t change our heights. However, we can change the heights of future generations. In addition, I have a few points to make. The scientists that say I have ignored conflicting evidence should read my books and papers. Actually it’s the critics who have ignored the evidence. For example, have they reported the following data that conflicts with their belief that taller is healthier in their papers?

    1. National US data show that shorter Asians have a much lower mortality rate compared to taller White and Black males. In addition, Latinos and Native Americans are in between Asians and White/Blacks in both height and mortality rates. That is, mortality rises with increasing height for the five ethnic groups reported. This Government study is based on about 18 million deaths between 1985 and 1999. These findings are hard to ignore but they have been out there for years.

    2. Why do critics ignore the 1991 Holzenberger study. This study tracked about 1 million men from their youth to their deaths and found that they lost 0.8 yr/cm of increased height. I haven’t come across references to his work. If they are out there, they appear to be rare. If Holzenberger had found that tall men live longer, I’m sure it would have gotten wide circulation.

    3. If we look at life expectancy data (CIA World Factbook, 2001), the top six populations in terms of life expectancy are substantially shorter than the six tallest populations in Western europe. Yet, populations like Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore ranked about 3.5 from the top compared to a ranking of 28 for taller Scandinavians, Germans and the Dutch.

    4. The latest study on height was published a few months ago and is entitled: Height and Survival at Older Ages Among Men Born in an Inland Village in Sardinia (Italy), 1866-2006. It was published in Biodemography and Social Biology. This study found that within an isolated, homogeneous population, shorter men lived 2 years longer than taller ones. Their average height was 5’3″; they are the shortest people in Sardinia and also the longest living. This study is consistent with earlier findings in Sardinia which found that shorter men live longer. To my knowledge, pro tall height epidemiologists also conveniently ignored these findings.

    5. Women are smaller than males and live longer. Professor Miller found that when he compared men and women of the same height, they lived the same number of years. This finding is consistent with the fact that small male dogs live longer than larger breed females. Miller’s study, which also found shorter people live longer, was also given short shrift.

    6. Professor Alex Comfort and many other scientists have pointed out that smaller individuals within a species generally live longer than larger individuals. This includes dogs, mice, rats, cows, ponies vs horses and Asian elephants vs African elephants.

    7. About 2000 caloric restriction studies have shown that early caloric restriction leads to smaller bodies and much greater longevity. However, caloric restriction must be associated with a nutritious diet and good environment.

    Professor Bartke recently published a review in Gerontology which concluded that smaller is better for our health and longevity: DOI:10.1159/000335166

    The preceding is only a small fraction of the evidence: see my website for a list of about 40 papers are available. It lists the articles and books that I have authored or co-authored.

    I agree that nutrition, medical care, standard of living, lifestyle, income, etc can neutralize the benefits of smaller body size because height represents only 10% of the longevity picture. Thus, upper class people tend to be taller and the various advantages of a better lifestyle and medical care can promote lower mortality, especially in middle age years. (I know of no studies of centenarians that found they were on average tall.) However, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and American researchers have reported that being short and light was common among centenarians.

    I sympathize with researchers who have believed taller height is healthier most of their lives. It is hard for them to open their minds to the possibility that the opposite may be true. I hope they will rethink their old beliefs based on a false connection between nutrition and height because our life expectancy has increased. I doubt that they would believe that being fat is desirable because our life expectancy has risen sharply in parallel with increasing human obesity. I suggest that they consider Professor Rollo’s observation that the high meat and calorie diets of industrialized populations accelerates aging. If it didn’t, why does 50% of 65 year old Americans take 5 medications a day and 25% take 10 to 20 medications per day?

    We can’t change our heights, but we can lower our body weight while on a wholesome diet that minimizes the promotion of chronic diseases that have been promoted by our industrial diets, which are too high in animal protein, processed foods, and calories.

    thomas samaras wrote on July 10th, 2012
  11. Re: Mary’s Primal/paleo enthusiasts paint…..

    According to my sources, early man was of moderate height and about 150 pounds. And I agree that if they didn’t get killed in warfare or by predators, they probably lived a long time. There’s no doubt that today’s hunter gathers and nomads don’t have a high life expectancy. However, this lower life expectancy is due to a high infant mortality, lack of medical care, and death from infections and injuries. In short developing populations following traditional diets, few people over 60 years of age die from chronic diseases. For example, the 5′ Yanomamo Indians (South America) have been found to be free of heart disease and strokes. When they move to urban areas and change their diet, their heart disease increases rapidly.

    If we look at developed populations, coronary heart disease is lowest in Japan, Hong Kong, France, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Substantially higher rates occur in the taller Scandinavian populations, Holland, Germany and Finland. In terms of life expectancy, in an earlier paper, I reported that the six populations with the greatest longevity were Andorra, Macao, Japan, San Marino, Singapore and Hong Kong. The tallest Western European populations ranked 28th from the top in life expectancy compared to 3.5 from the top for these shorter populations.

    Tom Samaras

    thomas samaras wrote on August 5th, 2012
  12. So, given the concept that shorter people live longer than taller people, on average.
    From that we can deduct that North Koreans should on average live longer than South Koreans. And furthermore South Koreans probably eat more processed food than the North. Below is an interesting article that agrees with this theory.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17774210

    Ian

    Ian Bell wrote on August 20th, 2012
  13. I also believe that growth hormones in our meat and dairy products have led to the increase in height and foot size.

    Georgia wrote on August 23rd, 2012
  14. I had Samaras on my podcast about a month ago and we talked about the link between stature and overall health.

    I would suspect that the reason why taller people don’t live as long is due to cell replication rates. You already know about the Hayflick Limit so I won’t bore the people with a genetic lesson.

    Taller people are taller because when their growth plate cartilage was still around, the replication rate of their chondrocytes was higher. This meant their longitudinal growth and height was elevated.

    When they stopped growing taller, the cell replication rate was still higher than average. That replication rate of their cells was genetically always slightly higher than average. this meant that the person was moving faster towards cell breakdown or senescence.

    If you look at taller people, on average their face would look older than average. Shorter people have a slower cell replication speed so they will on average look slightly younger than average.

    Michael wrote on June 3rd, 2013
  15. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. I don’t think the human frame is designed to fit people well once over 6′. That is. once that person is past their prime

    kLPantera wrote on August 10th, 2013
  16. There’s a conversion error, though. I use the metric system, being non-anglophone European, and haven’t an innate sense of cm/in conversion but knowing my 163cm is 5’4” I can tell 161cm can’t be 5’5.4” but approx 5’3” which proves the point even more, in fact. After looking at the source, it seems two lines of the table got confused, 161cm is for late neolithic and 5’5.4” is the line below that, early Bronze.

    naamat wrote on January 22nd, 2014
  17. Hi Mark,

    Good comments on height and health.

    I just had a paper published in Nutrition and Health: How height is related to our health and longevity: a review: DOI: 10.1177/0260106013510996

    The idea that our modern diet is healthful is simply not true. Researchers, such as Campbell, Rollo, Popkin, Burkitt, Trowell, and Farb attributed our increased height to over nutrition, not good nutrition. The impressive 2007 report by the World Cancer Research Fund and reports by Harvard and Tufts Universities tell us that red meat and processed meats promote cancer, heart disease and diabetes. In addition, people following traditional diets, which are usually plant-based, are free of chronic disease until they adopt a Western type diet. For example, the Yanomamo indians in South America are 5’ tall and free of heart disease until they leave their villages and move to towns which have different diets and lifestyles.

    As I mentioned in my paper, in 1900 men 75 years of age had a 8.5 year life expectancy. In 2000, men 75 years of age had a 10 year life expectancy. In spite of huge developments in health care and medicine, the men in 2000 only saw a 1.5 year increase in life expectancy. The men in 1900 also worked about 60 hours a week at physically difficult and dangerous jobs.

    A Gallup poll found that 86% of the US work force has a chronic health problem or is obese. Since much of the work force is rather young, this is a terrible statement about our so-called good health. Another study found that for people over 65 years of age, 50% take 5 or more medications a day.
    Twenty-five percent take 10 to 20 medications a day.

    Studies also show higher income people live about 5 years longer than poor people. in one Scottish city an 11 year difference was found. Since higher income people are usually taller than poor people, it is mistakenly assumed that tallness is tied to better health. The fact is that higher income people eat smarter, have better health care, and follow lifestyle practices that promote health and longevity,

    My point is that we are living longer because of advances in sanitation, antibiotics, medicine and safer work places. We are not living longer because of better nutrition and health.

    If you can’t get the paper, let me know.

    Tom Samaras

    thomas samaras wrote on January 22nd, 2014
  18. I presume that what you guys mostly mentioned about indicates that taller person is better downrightly.. concluding better nutrition in childhood, to some extent to the better indication of social success..

    I am 5.8.. my father is much taller than me.. I am overcoming stereotyping norm..

    good-looking korean wrote on July 18th, 2014

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2014 Mark's Daily Apple