NEW ORLEANS — Taller women are more likely to have physical or mental health problems by the time they reach their mid-70s than their shorter counterparts, a new study finds. However, rather than resigning to such a fate, women can take certain steps to ward off the negative effects of a tall stature.
Several factors, including genetics and certain circumstances that take place early in life, influence how tall a person will be, the researchers wrote.
Previous research showed taller people have a reduced risk of heart disease, but a greater risk of cancer, said Wenjie Ma, a doctoral student in epidemiology at Harvard University's School of Public Health and the lead author of the study. Ma presented her findings here Tuesday (Nov. 15) at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions.
But researchers didn't know how women's height would affect their overall health as they aged, Ma told Live Science.
In the study, the researchers analyzed data on more than 68,000 women who were enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study. The women's heights, along with information about their BMI, smoking status, physical activity levels and diets, were recorded in 1980, when their average age was 44. [5 Key Nutrients Women Need As They Age]
The study follow-up continued until 2012, when the researchers determined which women met the criteria for "healthy aging." A "healthy ager" was defined as a woman who had no reported memory problems, no physical problems, no mental health limitations and was free of 11 chronic diseases, such as cancer, Type 2 diabetes and kidney failure.
The women were placed into five groups based on their height, Ma said. The median heights of the groups were 62 inches (157.5 cm), 63 inches (160 cm), 64 inches (162.6 cm), 66 inches (167.6) and 68 inches (172.2 cm).
Compared with the group that had a median height of 62 inches, the women in the 68-inch group were less likely to meet the criteria for healthy aging, Ma said. The findings did not change when the researchers adjusted for factors such as ethnicity, marriage status, menopause status and family history of disease.
It's not clear why taller women may be less likely to experience healthy aging — future studies should look at this question, the researchers said.
But when the researchers studied the women's lifestyle factors, including diet, they found that tall women who reported eating a healthy diet fared better than those who didn't. In other words, eating a healthy diet appeared to soften the association between taller height and unhealthy aging.
The healthy diet that appeared to have a positive effect was rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, Ma said.
The researchers noted that the study found an association, and does not prove there is a cause-and-effect relationship between being taller and experiencing more health problems during aging.
More research is needed to see if the findings apply to other groups of people, the researchers said. The findings have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Originally published on Live Science.