Genetic link between height and heart disease

8 April 2015        

A man having his height measured

New research at the University of Leicester, that we helped fund, has used genetics to show a link between being short and an increased risk of heart disease.

The study, led by BHF Professor Sir Nilesh Samani at the University of Leicester, has shown that every 6 cm or 2.5 inch decrease in your height increases your relative risk of coronary heart disease by 13.5%. For example, compared to a 5 ft 6 inch tall person, a 5 ft person has a 32% higher relative risk of coronary heart disease because of their shorter height.

Coronary heart disease is the the UK's single biggest killer. It is the condition where the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle (coronary arteries) become narrowed due to fatty material in the walls of the arteries - also called atherosclerosis. If a blood clot forms and breaks away, this can cause a heart attack.

This sounds familiar

For more than 60 years it has been known that there is a relationship between a person's height and their risk of coronary heart disease but it was not clear whether this relationship was due to factors such as poor socioeconomic environment, or nutrition, during childhood.

This new research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, has used large scale genetic studies to show that the known association between increased height and a lower risk of coronary heart disease is at least in part due to genetics, rather than purely down to nutrition or lifestyle factors. The team has identified several ways that naturally occurring gene variations can control both a person’s height and their risk of coronary heart disease. Further exploration of these genes may suggest new ways to reduce the risk of heart and circulatory disease.

Should short people worry about their heart health?

Professor Peter Weissberg, our Medical Director, said: “This study does not suggest that short people should be unduly worried about their health or that doctors need to focus on the health of shorter patients – it suggests that some of the genes that determine our height may also have an influence on factors that make us more susceptible to heart disease, for example our blood lipids.  

"Everyone, regardless of their height, should do everything in their power to reduce their risk of future heart disease by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and not smoking.  Currently available health checks are designed to help you understand what measures you need to take to reduce your personal risk.”