The “short” answer about your heart disease risk

A new study published last month in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found short men and women run a greater risk of developing heart disease. This interesting study caught my eye, and I thought it would make for a perfect “short” topic for today, since my Friday Dispatches typically are a little shorter in length. (This practice leaves me a little extra space to recap the rest of the week.)

Truthfully, these findings about height and heart disease risk surprised me…

As you may recall, I studied the relationship among childhood nutrition, childhood growth, and the long-term risk of cancer for my Ph.D. dissertation. I found taller women clearly run a greater risk of developing breast cancer.

Of course, several other factors in younger life also raise a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer later in life, including:

  1. Lack of breastfeeding
  2. “Overfeeding” with cow’s milk (six times higher in calories, fats and proteins than human milk)
  3. Faster growth rates
  4. Increased body mass (both fat and lean body mass)
  5. More red blood cells
  6. Earlier age at menarche (beginning of menstruation and monthly ovulatory cycle)

These factors proved more strongly predictive of breast cancer than the older adult diet and lifestyle factors the U.S. government continues to trundle out.

Among men, I found similar factors for prostate cancer. To some extent, for both men and women, these factors also increased their risks for developing colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, and other glandular cancers.

While I finished my Ph.D. dissertation, I was working at the National Institutes of Health in the mid-1980s. I began advising people there we needed to look earlier in life to stop the modern epidemic of cancer. And my views started to garner attention…

Harvard scientists Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. Graham Colditz cited my results in the New England Journal of Medicine. (The same journal in which this new study on heart disease appeared.) Though, Dr. Colditz seems to have forgotten about this old citation. I recently told you about the announcement of his important, “new” discovery that breast cancer prevention needs to begin in childhood!

Of course, as I mentioned, the latest NEJM study came to the opposite conclusion…people with shorter stature are more likely to have heart disease.

I did consider the possibility of “competing risks.” That is to say, taller people have higher rates of breast and prostate (and other) cancers, so perhaps they succumb to cancer before they can die from heart disease. But the researchers for this new study carried out age-controls to rule out that factor.

Of course being modern researchers, they immediately jumped to the conclusion that short stature must be associated with some “faulty” gene that coincidentally increases the risk of heart disease.

We do, in fact, have genes related to cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. But these genes can’t account for most of the differences observed when it comes to height and heart disease. (And, of course, cholesterol levels don’t account for most of the differences in heart disease either, when you cut through all the noise created by the statin drug cartel.)

But who can be bothered with biology? These researchers prefer to run around trying to identify genes to blame for this association between short height and heart disease. They are looking at genetic influences on the growth of cells in arteries that could affect inflammation or atherosclerosis.

Although, once again, we just need to go back and study basic biology. We link heart disease with more cell growth in the blood vessel walls. But short height is obviously associated with less growth.

This takes me back to my early days of research at NIH…

Years ago, when we were studying the connections between height and glandular cancer we (me at NIH, as well as Drs. Willett and Colditz at Harvard) carefully considered the role of genes vs. environment (primarily diet and nutrition) in determining adult height.

Among the shortest quarter of adults in the U.S. and European populations, only half of those were short due to familial or genetic associations. That is, only half were short because their parent(s) were short. The other half were short due to childhood nutritional deficiencies.

We know your heart and muscles need B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin C, and minerals. Especially during childhood. Shouldn’t we consider the possibility that not getting enough of these nutrients during the growth period of childhood could result in shorter adult height and more heart disease?

I suppose that’s asking too much.

Apparently, these scientists would rather chase “faulty” genes (which still can’t be changed, despite all the biotech hype about genetic engineering) and the promise of genetic “cures” than face some simple facts about human diet and nutrition.


  1. “Genetically determined height and coronary artery disease,” N Engl J Med ( 4/8/2015