Being tall might get you a spot on the basketball team, and it may even be good for your self-esteem and your paycheck. But recent research has also found that towering over your peers may affect various aspects of your physical health, as well—and not all for the better.
Some of these health risks have to do with the physiology of being an especially small or large person, and what that means for the body’s organs. Here are a few ways height has recently been linked to health.
In a September study published in the journal , researchers investigated the link between height and venous thromboembolism, the third leading cause of heart attack and stroke. They found that, in a group of more than 2 million Swedish siblings, men shorter than 5’3” had a 65% lower risk of developing a venous thromboembolism, a type of blood clot that starts in a vein, than men taller than 6’2”. They also analyzed a group of pregnant women, since pregnancy can be a trigger for these types of blood clots. Those shorter than 5’1” had a 69% lower risk compared to those 6’ and taller.
Why? Gravity may be influencing the link. “It could just be that because taller individuals have longer leg veins there is more surface area where problems can occur,” said lead researcher Dr. Bengt Zöller, associate professor at Lund University and Malmö University Hospital in Sweden, in a news release. Increased gravitational pressure in the veins of taller legs can also increase the risk of blood flow slowing or stopping temporarily.
The CDC estimates that thromboembolisms affect up to 600,000 Americans every year, and that number is increasing—possibly because average height is also increasing, says Zöller.
The risk of dying from cancer increases by 4% for every two and a half inches of height a person has, according to a 2016 review paper published in the . Being tall may be a marker of over-nutrition—specifically, eating too many high-calorie animal proteins—during different stages of growth and development, either throughout life or before birth. That could activate growth processes that leave cells vulnerable to mutations, the report states.
There are other theories, as well. “Height may also be an indicator of organ size,” wrote review co-author Matthias Schulze of the German Institute of Human Nutrition in an email to the reporter. “The larger the organ, the more cells are at risk of malignant transformation.”
Other studies have also found that tall (and obese) men are at increased risk of developing aggressive forms of prostate cancer, and that tall women are more likely to develop melanoma, as well as breast, ovarian, endometrial and colon cancer.
On the other hand, tall people may have have lower rates of heart disease and diabetes. In the recent study, for every 2.5 inches of height, a person’s risk of dying from heart disease decreased by 6%. Taller people tend to naturally have bigger lungs and stronger hearts, says Schulze, which may partially explain these effects. Plus, the same over-nutrition phenomenon associated with increased cancer risk may be protective in other ways: It could trigger an increased production of a hormone that helps the body control blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
There may be another exception to the taller-is-heart-healthier rule. Preliminary research presented at a cardiology conference in April found that taller and bigger women are nearly three times as likely to develop atrial fibrillation, a dangerous heart rhythm disorder.
The larger a woman’s body size as a young adult, the more likely she was to develop the irregularity during the 16-year study. Larger cells in a woman’s heart could interrupt its electrical pathways, the authors suspect, and extra pressure against the lungs (due to a woman’s large size) could cause the heart to distend.
However, the potential effects of height on disease and mortality risk are still likely very low, say the experts—certainly lower than the risk factors you can control, like diet, exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol.