Short Stature Linked with Higher Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

A person checking their blood glucose.
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Shorter people may be at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes compared with taller people, a new study from Europe suggests.

The study researchers analyzed information from thousands of people in Germany who underwent a physical exam and blood tests, and were followed for about seven years.

The researchers found that every 4-inch (10 centimeter) increase in a person's height was linked with a 41% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes for men and a 33% reduced risk for women. 

The findings held even after the researchers took into account factors that could affect a person's risk of type 2 diabetes, such as age, waist circumference, physical activity levels, smoking habits and alcohol consumption.

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The results add to a growing body of research linking shorter stature with an increased risk of heart and metabolic problems.

The reason for the link isn't fully understood. But the results of the new study also suggested that people with shorter stature tended to have higher levels of fat in their liver, which may in part explain their increased risk of type 2 diabetes, the authors said.

The study only found an association and cannot prove that short stature directly leads to type 2 diabetes. For example, problems with nutrition in childhood, which the study couldn't take into account, might lead to both short stature and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Still, "shorter individuals should be more closely monitored for diabetes and CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk factors," the authors wrote in their study, published today (Sept. 9) in the journal Diabetologia.

The researchers, from the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke, pulled data from more than 27,000 people ages 35 to 65 who took part in an earlier study investigating ties between diet, lifestyle behaviors and the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. Of these participants, the researchers randomly selected about 2,500 participants who were representative of the whole group. (Having a smaller group made it easier for the researchers to study levels of biomarkers in participants blood.) About 800 of these participants developed type 2 diabetes over the study period. 

The link between height and type 2 diabetes risk was strongest for participants with a healthy weight (BMI between 18 and 25), as opposed to those who were overweight or obese.It may be that for taller people, a larger waist circumference somewhat counteract the reduced risk o type 2 diabetes that is associated with their height, the authors said.

The researchers also found that having longer legs (as opposed to a longer torsos) was linked with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, particularly for men.

When the researchers took into account measures of fat in the liver and in the blood, the link between height and diabetes risk was weakened. This suggests that levels of liver fat and fat in the blood could in part explain the link.

It may be that biological pathways that affect a person's height also influence the risk of type 2 diabetes through an effect on fat metabolism, the authors said.

"Our findings suggest that short people might present with higher cardiometabolic risk factor levels and have higher diabetes risk compared with tall people," the authors wrote. The findings also suggest that a person's height might be used to help predict their risk of developing diabetes, along with other traditional risk factors, such as obesity.

A 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that certain genes may play a role in the link between short stature and an increased risk of heart disease. That study found that people who had more genetic markers tied to taller height were at lower risk for coronary artery disease, compared with those who had fewer of these markers, Live Science previously reported.

But genes aren't destiny when it comes to your risk of heart disease or type 2 diabetes. "The goal is to take the genes you have been given and put them in the best possible environment," with habits such as healthy eating and regular exercise, Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of clinical cardiology at National Jewish Health in Denver, who wasn't involved with either study, told Live Science in a 2016 interview. 

 Originally published on Live Science. 

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.