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Being taller throughout life may protect against heart disease and stroke

Press release issued: 3 November 2023

Being taller during the course of a person’s lifetime could protect against heart disease and stroke in later life, according to a new University of Bristol-led study. The research, which analysed height and genetic data on over 454,000 individuals, is published in the pre-print publication* medRxiv.

Previous studies have suggested that being taller may protect against heart disease, but whether this is a direct effect of height during childhood, a long-term effect of remaining tall into adulthood, or other factors, was unknown until now.

Researchers from Bristol Medical School used a scientific technique called mendelian randomisation which allows scientists to separate the impact of childhood and adult height on cardiovascular health. Pioneered at Bristol, the approach uses genetic predictors as proxy measures to support stronger conclusions about possible causal relationships between an exposure (childhood and adult height) and risk of a disease (cardiovascular disease).

Using data from the UK Biobank study, the team identified genetic variants associated with childhood and adult height from 454,023 individuals, and the genetic markers associated with five types of cardiovascular disease. These included stroke, coronary artery disease, peripheral artery disease, irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation), and thoracic aortic aneurysm.

From their analyses, results showed that individuals who are taller in early life typically have lower risk of coronary artery disease. However, novel evidence from this work indicates that this is likely attributed to individuals remaining taller throughout the life course — as taller children on average grow to be taller adults — and that it is adulthood height which is largely responsible for this protective effect. In contrast, results from this study suggest that being taller in childhood may also increase later life risk of other cardiovascular disease outcomes such as thoracic aortic aneurysm and irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation), irrespective of adulthood height.

Dr Tom Richardson, an Honorary Research Fellow at Bristol’s MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit and Bristol Medical School’s Population Health Sciences, and the study’s lead author, said: “Our findings suggest that being taller in childhood may have a long-term influence on increased risk of thoracic aortic aneurysm and atrial fibrillation in later life. These results highlight a potential developmental mechanism linking childhood height and risk of these diseases which warrants further investigation by future research.”

The study is funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Preprint paper

'Effects of childhood and adult height on later life cardiovascular disease risk estimated through Mendelian randomization' by T Richardson et al. in medRxiv

* Please note this is a preprint, so it is a preliminary piece of research that has not yet been through peer review and has not been published in a scientific journal – so this is early data.

Further information

About Mendelian Randomisation 
Information on Mendelian Randomisation: a method of using genetic variation between people to examine the causal effect of a modifiable exposure (e.g. diet) on a disease (e.g. osteoporosis). The use of genetics reduces the potential contribution of confounders, whereby a risk factor and a disease are related due to common relationships with a third factor, rather than due to one having a causal effect on the other. University of Bristol researchers have published guides in the BMJ and Nature Reviews Methods, contributed to bmj and freakonomics podcasts, and produced a two-minute video primer.   

About the Medical Research Council
The Medical Research Council is at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty-three MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms.

About the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (IEU)
The MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (IEU) at the University of Bristol conducts some of the UK's most advanced population health science research. It uses genetics, population data and experimental interventions to look for the underlying causes of chronic disease. The unit exploits the latest advances in genetic and epigenetic technologies. They develop new analytic methods to improve our understanding of how our family background behaviours and genes interact to influence health outcomes.

About UK Biobank
UK Biobank is a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing anonymised genetic, lifestyle and health information from half a million UK participants. UK Biobank’s database, which includes blood samples, heart and brain scans and genetic data of the volunteer participants, is globally accessible to approved researchers who are undertaking health-related research that’s in the public interest.

UK Biobank’s resource was opened for research use in April 2012. Since then 30,000 researchers from 100 countries have been approved to use it and more than 6,000 peer-reviewed papers that used the resource have now been published.

You can find out more about UK Biobank at

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